Coronavirus rapid self-testing kits are being advertised on a Chinese social media platform in Australia — promising results in as little as 15 minutes — as the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Individuals, medical centres and pharmacies are the consumers being targeted by advertisers
- The Department of Health says the supply of self-tests for COVID-19 is prohibited by law
- There are concerns that the new finger-prick test could produce false negatives
Despite the Government’s latest move to loosen the criteria for testing, online sellers in the Chinese-Australian community are trying to capitalise on buyers wanting to fast-track their testing.
One Australia-based seller, who only wants to be known as Lily, runs an online business on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform with about 3 million users in Australia.
In addition to rapid COVID-19 testing kits, she also sells coveted items including surgical masks, KF94 respiratory protective masks and disinfectant sprays.
Lily told the ABC there was a huge demand in the community and she sold the kits for $59 each.
“It’s like a pregnancy test … [it takes about] 15 minutes,” she said.
“To get a test in the hospital, you have to meet certain criteria. [By using the kit at home], you don’t have to increase the risk of getting infected by going to the hospital.”
Another Australia-based seller, who only wishes to be known as Allen, told the ABC he had seen many other people selling these kits on WeChat and he was trying to bulk sell 15-minute rapid tests for COVID-19 to GP clinics and pharmacies.
He said a friend of his claimed to be working for a Therapeutic Goods Administration-approved Chinese manufacturer and had approached him to open up “private channels” to expand their sales.
“I have a lot of people that have asked me about the products [after I posted the advertisement],” he said.
“If the hospital does not give you a test, there is also a risk [of being infected without knowing]. If you solely rely on the Government, there is no other way to do the test.”
However, supplying self-testing kits is illegal in Australia and is also not permitted in mainland China, and it’s unclear just how many self-test kits have been sold to buyers.
“The supply of self-tests or at-home tests for most serious infectious diseases, including self-tests for COVID-19, is prohibited under the Therapeutic Goods (Excluded Purposes) Specification 2010,” a Department of Health spokesperson told the ABC.
They said the import, export, manufacture and supply of medicines or medical devices not included on the Australia Register of Therapeutic Goods could result in criminal prosecution or civil litigation if there were no specific exclusions or exemptions applied to those activities.
“Non-compliance with the regulatory scheme is being monitored and we are working closely with the Australian Border Force and other health and law enforcement agencies,” the spokesperson said.
“The TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) has and will continue to encourage reporting of potential non-compliance via the TGA website for investigation and action.”
Failing to adhere to the law could see individuals face up to five years’ imprisonment and $840,000 in fines, while businesses face up $4.2 million in fines.
The spokesperson added that Australia required “testing for serious infectious diseases to be conducted in conjunction with a healthcare professional who can provide appropriate advice and treatment if required”.
In China, at-home coronavirus test kits went viral on WeChat earlier in March, with advertisements for companies to test returning workers and those who could not access the hospital.
China’s National Medical Products Administration quickly debunked the rumours of self-testing and claimed no authorised at-home test kits were allowed.
In a statement on their website, the administration said the rapid diagnostic products for the coronavirus should “only be used as a supplementary detection indicator for suspected cases” and “for medical institutions only”.
‘Improper handling of test kits may result in public health risks’
The ABC understands there are some people trying to sell COVID-19 self-test kits in several private chatrooms on WeChat.
When asked whether she knew selling self-test kits was prohibited in Australia, Lily said she was unaware and would stop advertising them.
And despite initially saying she sold about 50 test kits a week, she later backtracked, saying she hadn’t sold any so far, but was hoping to sell about 50 a week when asked about the legality of her sales.
Allen said he was only “testing the waters” and was still talking to the manufacturer about the feasibility of importing and selling the products in Australia.
One of the self-test kits Lily sells is the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) 1gM/1gG Antibody Rapid Test, which instructs individuals to take samples of blood and then add three drops of a diluting agent for a 15-minute incubation to see the results.
The packaging in the ad shows the maker of the test kits is a company called Beijing Hotgen Biotech — however, the company’s name isn’t listed on the website of the TGA’s approved companies, therefore people should not be selling their products in Australia.
A spokesperson for Beijing Hotgen Biotech told the ABC their kits were “not suitable” for customers to self-test at home, as per China’s medical regulations.
He said the company was not aware its products were circulating in the Australian market, adding the company would look into the matter.
China’s Xinhua News Agency last month also warned Chinese citizens not to buy so called self-testing kits online, adding the “improper handling of used testing equipment may also bring public health risks”.
‘Calm heads have to prevail’
So far, the TGA has approved 19 manufacturers to legally supply COVID-19 diagnostic tests in Australia, seven of them are Chinese companies.
The regulator has expedited approval for some COVID-19 test kits that can deliver results in 15 minutes, but reiterated the supply of self-testing kits was prohibited.
Last week, Health Minister Greg Hunt announced new finger-prick tests would soon be rolled out within GP clinics in addition to the standard throat and nasal swab testing.
The Federal Government pledged $2.6 million in funding to the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity to “help maximise Australia’s capacity to test patients for the coronavirus”.
The research includes “post-market assessment of new coronavirus rapid screening tests to inform their best use”.
While many medical experts welcome the Government’s effort to push for a faster and simpler pathology test on COVID-19, there are still concerns around the efficacy of the rapid test kits in principle.
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“The question is about how effective they are, in terms of reliability, in terms of things like what we call a false negative, which is it picks up the test and it’s telling you it’s negative, but in fact it’s actually positive,” Australian Medical Association South Australia president Chris Moy said.
“Obviously every one of those that you get wrong is going to cause a serious problem, particularly a false negative.”
He said these were all new tests and even the current swabbing had a false negative rate.
“We are happy that we are starting to see innovation in technology, but everybody wants to sell you something at the moment in the current climate,” Dr Moy said.
“Cool heads and calm heads have to prevail, ensuring these tests are going to be of benefit, not actually causing us more problems in the end.”
Dr Moy said the risk associated with a finger prick test was relatively low, but mishandling of the used sharps could pose potential problems.
A billion-dollar industry
Whether it’s parents furious over baby formula shortages or military personnel loading boxes onto Chinese warships — chances are you’ve crossed paths with a trading phenomenon that’s shaken businesses around the country.
Seller Lily, prior to telling the ABC she would stop advertising the product, said the test results were all for reference, but that “the final say is still with the hospital”.
In a statement to the ABC, Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, said the platform encouraged users to report any suspicious or illegal behaviour on WeChat.
“Tencent does not permit our platforms, products or services to be used for any illegal activities,” Tencent said.
“As part of our ongoing efforts to safeguard Weixin’s [WeChat] security and integrity, our global risk management team monitors the platform around-the-clock in order to take immediate action against any accounts engaged in illegal activities.”
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