Major French airports to launch fast new coronavirus test

The goal is for the tests to help bring an end to travel restrictions such as quarantine on arrival

27 October 2020
By Liv Rowland

Rapid Covid-19 antigen tests with results in under 30 minutes are set to begin in several major French airports.

The tests are backed by the World Health Organisation, and the air industry plans to roll them out quickly to more airports. They will be on offer at Nice and Paris Charles de Gaulle and Orly on a voluntary basis and work by nasal swab, like PCR tests. There will be a charge, as yet undisclosed, a spokeswoman for Paris Airports said.

The aim is to restore confidence in flying and help to end travel restrictions, such as the UK’s 14-day quarantine.

In the first instance, testing will be prioritised for passengers flying to countries which require a negative Coronavirus test, such as France’s overseas territories or Italy, though tests will also be offered to some people arriving from non-EU countries deemed high risk.

Paris Airports said they are working with the health authorities to have the tests in place. “The overall aim is to have a health framework which allows people to feel confident about air travel again,” she said. “Already the tests are recognised for the overseas territories but they could allow us to open up travel to other countries which will recognise their validity.”

However, in many cases it is still only PCR tests that are recognised for travel around the world, she added. Among countries to accept the new antigen tests is the US.

The spokeswoman said the airports’ testing capacity would increase over time but, for now, people are still advised to have a test in the 72 hours before coming (PCR or antigen).

GPs, nurses and pharmacies will also soon be able to carry out these tests, freeing up over-burdened laboratories.

Nicolas Paulissen, head of the French airports body UAF, told Connexion: “We would like the UK to accept antigen tests so as to remove the quarantine requirement, which has completely killed off our sector’s recovery."

“It gave a very bad signal and was copied by other countries, for example eastern European ones. And while the summer season was better than expected, autumn is going to be worse than expected. The situation is impossible. Being able to have test results in half an hour is adapted to the flow of air transport and will favour recovery.”

Major benefits of fast Covid-19 testing for travellers

Head of French airline industry body Fnam Georges Daher said they are aware that the antigen test has weaknesses.

France’s French National Authority for Health Haute Autorité de Santé, which authorised use of the test, says it is “a little less reliable” than the PCR, especially where people do not show symptoms of the disease.

Speed is key. “With PCR tests, people are asked to do them 72 hours before and have difficulties and have to queue. Customers are hesitant,” Georges Daher said. “If we can tell them: come a little in advance and have your test at the airport if you’ve not been able to get results yet, it will simplify their lives and they can travel more easily. We are struggling to fill the planes."

“The fact of doing a test at the last minute could also reassure destination countries, as the person is unlikely to have become infected since taking the test. However, we are not cheering yet as not all countries recognise the test. We hope it is progressively recognised in Europe and the world.”

The European Commission is working on harmonising rules for the tests. “The more we simplify procedures, the more likely passengers will come back,”said Mr Daher. “The UK is a large market for us. If it will accept and harmonise its rules with the EU, that would be good.

“When you tell people if you go to the UK you have to go into confinement, it doesn’t encourage them to fly.”

The UK has a 14-day quarantine for arrivals from all countries, apart from designated “travel corridor” ones where the virus is classed as under control.

The airlines hope that once practical aspects are ironed out in Paris and Nice, antigen tests will be quickly extended.

“It will go very fast if it proves not to be too complicated,” said Mr Daher. “We are doing at least 65% less air business than usual. “We had been hoping for an upturn, but the spread of the disease in France and Europe is not encouraging.”

Fnam was one of several aviation sector bodies that recently signed a press release calling on France to put the tests in place at airports to fight Covid-19’s “devastating” effects.

UAF was also a signatory and Mr Paulissen said agreements are being made between airports and doctors, nurses or labs to offer the tests.

However, they would still prefer passengers to arrive already with a negative test if possible, as demand at airports could become too great when traffic increases in coming months. They therefore welcome the fast tests becoming widely available.

Mr Paulissen said that, in Paris, laboratories have been unable to cope with demand for PCR tests, with 15% of passengers being turned away from flights to the overseas territories because they have not had time to get results.

Those flights will therefore be a priority for tests, as well as those to countries such as Italy which already require a negative result and accept the rapid antigen option. In Italy’s case, the test can be done before or after arrival.

He also hopes for the harmonisation of testing recognition across Europe, following on from a recent harmonisation of colour indicators of countries’ Covid-19 risk. 

He said the European Commission has asked EU aviation safety agency EASA and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control to work on a unified testing protocol.

A spokeswoman for easyJet said: “We welcome this step [of rapid tests in French airports]. “It is clear testing is going to be so crucial for people to be able to fly and so this could be an important step. “In the longer term a standard scheme of testing on departures across Europe is key as it will be simpler and provide more certainty for passengers. So we will continue to work with the UK government and governments across Europe to try to achieve this.”

Fast testing could help stop UK's quarantine

The UK’s Transport Ministry said the government has launched a task force to work with the travel industry on how to “facilitate travel through innovative testing models” and to potentially reduce requirements for self-isolation.

The spokesman said they keep travel corridor lists under constant review, with countries coming on and off regularly.

The UK uses varied criteria to evaluate a country’s risk levels, such as weekly case rates, trends in incidence and deaths, testing capacity, and positivity rates. It is thought, however, there is no short-term likelihood of France being added as a “corridor” due to rising new cases.

There is no formal UK policy on rapid antigen tests yet, but they are increasingly offered by private clinics and companies.

Former prime minister Tony Blair has championed the tests, saying they may be less accurate than “lab-based tests” but “we should not let the best be the enemy of the good”.

A spokesman for international aviation sector body IATA said it is working with the International Civil Aviation Authority to push for standardised pre-departure testing with fast tests. It believes testing on arrival is a poorer option as passengers cannot travel with the same confidence.

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