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Rapid antigen tests: Australian consumers miss out as government and big business snap up supplies | Health

The shortage of rapid antigen tests for consumers is being exacerbated by state and federal governments and large corporates placing mammoth orders for the kits, causing stock to be diverted from online retailers and pharmacies.

Australia is in the middle of a huge Omicron wave after state and federal governments pivoted from a policy of Covid suppression to one of “living with the virus”, causing a surge in demand for rapid antigen testing kits.

Prof Trent Twomey, the national president of the Pharmacy Guild, said his members were struggling to secure stock and many had had orders delayed by their suppliers.

However, he said anecdotal reports from his members that stock was being requisitioned by governments had proved to be unsubstantiated. The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, denied on Monday the commonwealth was requisitioning supplies of rapid antigen tests, as the Health Act allows.

“It is a plain lie,” Hunt said of the allegations running rife on Twitter. “I have written to suppliers to say that was not the Australian government’s position.”

But Twomey said requests for big orders, worth millions, from governments – both state and federal – have been hard for suppliers to ignore and there are numerous reports of retailers finding their stock unavailable, despite having paid for it in full and having confirmed delivery dates.

Last week, the commonwealth announced $62m worth of orders for the tests under the “extreme urgency and unforeseen circumstances” provision of commonwealth purchasing rules. This appeared to coincide with several online retailers and pharmacies being told their supplies were delayed.

Twomey said the pressure was also coming from states and territories, which were ordering rapid antigen tests for use in their testing sites for key workers, as well as from large companies ordering them to keep their workforces functioning in the latest Omicron wave.

The NSW government announced it had secured 50m tests so far and had a further 15m being delivered in the next seven days. It said these would be used to keep essential government services, including schools, open, as well as to provide tests for seriously ill patients.

“When we have gone and asked governments – state and federal – they tell us none of them has used [their requisitioning powers],” Twomey said.

“What’s happening is that its much easier for suppliers to deal with one customer who wants 100,000 tests than 1,000. So what we are seeing is manufacturers [and suppliers] preferencing larger clients over smaller clients.”

“Sometimes they are corporate Australia and sometimes they are indeed sovereign governments,” he said

Twomey said that unlike normal supply chains, where big players get discounts, the shortage of supply meant the big players were paying at or near the price that small customers were paying, making it highly attractive for suppliers to preference the big players.

“Usually suppliers like to have a balance on large and small clients and make money on the small sale orders,” he said. “But right now demand is so outstripping supply the big guys are paying the same price.”

Community pharmacies have agreed with the federal government to supply 10 free rapid antigen tests to concession holders from 24 January. Twomey warned last week there was a major hurdle ahead to source adequate supplies for concession holders. At the same time, community pharmacists are working to source supplies of rapid antigen tests for private sales.

“This is a huge logistical exercise, at short notice. Pharmacists are moving heaven and earth to source and stock adequate supplies of RATs,” Twomey said.

The federal government said last year that it had a national stockpile of 70m rapid antigen tests, but these are not the same as the ones sold in supermarkets and pharmacies for use by consumers. The stockpile is composed of “point of care tests” which require administration by a professional and come in bulk. They have been used predominantly in testing sites for frontline workers.

The Morrison government appears not to have foreseen the huge surge in demand for consumer-administered tests as a result of a policy pivot towards “living with the virus”. This may explain why the it was forced to use its urgency purchasing mechanism to source consumer rapid antigen tests.

The health department has been approached for comment.

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