Blue sky thinking: Airlines pin hopes on rapid virus tests

Beleaguered German carrier Lufthansa is in talks with Swiss drugmaker Roche over rapid testing kits that will initially go to cabin crew and ground staff. (Reuters)
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Updated 24 September 2020

Blue sky thinking: Airlines pin hopes on rapid virus tests

  • European carriers trial ‘antigen-tested flights’ in bid to restore passenger confidence

ZURICH: European airlines are pinning hopes on pre-flight coronavirus tests that deliver results as fast as pregnancy tests to help restore passengers’ confidence in taking to the skies in confined spaces with shared air.

Germany’s Lufthansa, at the mercy of government bailouts for survival, is in talks with Swiss drugmaker Roche over deploying so-called antigen tests, according to two people familiar with the discussions, as the airline aims to make them available next month.

Italian operator Alitalia, meanwhile, told Reuters that from Wednesday it would add two flights from Milan to Rome, to the two it is already offering from Rome to Milan, exclusively for passengers with negative tests.

The tests are administered by health authorities at the airports and included in ticket prices. If they prove popular and safe, these antigen-tested flights will be expanded to more domestic, and later international, routes, the airline said.

Unlike laboratory-based molecular tests that have been the staple of health authorities in the pandemic, antigen tests do not require machines to process. Much like pregnancy tests, they can produce results in about 15 minutes.

However, the tests require an uncomfortable nasal swab and are not as accurate as the molecular, or PCR, tests. They generally produce more “false negatives” which could mean sick people could slip through the cracks and onto planes.

An increasing number are hitting the market, from companies such as Abbott Laboratories, Becton Dickinson & Co. and Quidel Corp. and Roche, which is rebranding antigen tests from South Korea’s privately held
SD Biosensor.

Airlines are pressing governments to embrace alternatives to blanket travel restrictions amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Europe.

Rapid antigen tests that can be administered by non-medical staff are expected to become available in coming weeks for as little as $7 each, the head of industry body the International Air Transport Association said on Tuesday.

Despite the drawbacks of such antigen tests, carriers hope they could tip the balance in convincing people to fly.

“It is to give confidence, at a specific point in time, that the result is positive or negative,” said Christian Paulus, a Roche research and development manager.

“The PCR remains the gold standard. Therefore, if there are any questions open, or if the clinical appearance of the person who had a negative test, if the person has symptoms like a fever, then you would for sure do confirmatory testing.”




Rapid tests can deliver results in minutes, but produce more ‘false negatives,’ meaning sick people could slip through the cracks, experts warn. (Reuters)

Alitalia launched its “COVID Tested Flights” program from Rome to Milan last week, and will expand it from Wednesday. Only passengers with negative COVID-19 results can board.

“So far no positive passengers have been found,” said an Alitalia spokesman, adding that many chose to take the airline’s antigen tests the night before the flight. Travelers can access airport-testing facilities via a preferred lane with their tickets.

The airline plans to analyze findings around the middle of October, but already expects antigen-tested flights will be expanded to domestic and later international routes.

“First, we have to see how this experiment goes,” the spokesman said.

The pre-flight antigen tests follow a scheme in Italy where such tests were used defensively.

SD Biosensor said its tests had been deployed at Italian airports for incoming tourists, to avoid a renewed COVID-19 wave imported from infection hotspots.

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr last week told employees during a townhall meeting that the airline was in talks with Roche. The drugmaker started selling the rapid tests this week, and said SD Biosensor could initially supply it with about 40 million tests per month.

The Lufthansa tests could initially go to cabin crews, a spokeswoman said, though Bjoern Becker, a senior director of product management, ground & digital services for the Lufthansa Group, said the tests could also be made available to first-class and business-class passengers.

“We think the tests would be a better option than putting somebody into quarantine,” the airline spokeswoman said.

Beyond airlines, Germany is eyeing broader antigen test use from October, including in nursing homes where older patients have been hardest hit by the deadly virus.

Regulators still worry about test accuracy, which typically detect the virus 80 percent to 90 percent of the time, below the 95 percent rate of lab tests.

Still, some officials don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the pretty good as they pursue some semblance of economic normality.

“They’re good enough,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said, pledging antigen tests in “significant quantities.” The state of Bavaria has already ordered 10 million.


Britain, EU tell each other to move on trade

Updated 20 October 2020

Britain, EU tell each other to move on trade

  • Both sides call on each other to protect billions of dollars of trade between the neighbors

BRUSSELS: Britain and the EU said on Monday the door was still open for a deal on their post-Brexit relationship, calling on each other to compromise to find a way to protect billions of dollars of trade between the neighbors.

With just over two months before Britain ends a status quo transition arrangement with the EU, talks on a trade deal are deadlocked, with neither wanting to move first to offer concessions.

A no-deal finale to Britain’s five-year Brexit drama would disrupt the operations of manufacturers, retailers, farmers and nearly every other sector — just as the economic hit from the coronavirus pandemic worsens.

European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic repeated on Monday that the EU still wanted a trade deal but not “at any cost” after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday there was no point in continuing talks.

“It has to be a fair agreement for both sides — we are not going to sign an agreement at any cost,” Sefcovic told reporters after meeting Michael Gove, Britain’s point man on the existing divorce agreement, in London.

“The EU is ready to work until the last minute for a good agreement for both parties,” Sefcovic said.

Britain, increasingly frustrated by the EU’s refusal to start text-based talks, called on the bloc to make the first move, with its housing minister saying that Brussels only had to make “some relatively small but important changes.”

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick called on the EU to “go that extra mile, to come closer to us on the points that remain for discussion.”

A spokesman for Johnson again ruled out prolonging any negotiation beyond the end of this year, when the transition period runs out, saying the EU “must be ready to discuss the detailed legal text of a treaty in all areas with a genuine wish to respect UK sovereignty and independence.”

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier had been due in London for talks with British counterpart David Frost this week. Instead, they will now speak by telephone on Monday to discuss the structure of future talks, Barnier’s spokesman said.

Negotiations broke down on Thursday, when the EU demanded Britain give ground. Issues still to be resolved include fair competition rules, including state aid and fisheries. EU diplomats and officials cast Johnson’s move as a frantic bid to secure concessions before a last-minute deal was done, and European leaders have asked Barnier to continue talks.

British officials have repeatedly said any deal has to honor Britain’s new status as a sovereign country and not try to tie it to EU rules and regulations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said compromises on both sides would be needed. French President Emmanuel Macron said Britain needed a deal more than the 27-nation EU.

Britain is launching a campaign this week urging businesses to step up preparations for a no-deal departure. In a statement accompanying the launch, Gove says: “Make no mistake, there are changes coming in just 75 days and time is running out for businesses to act.”

More than 70 British business groups representing over 7 million workers on Sunday urged politicians to get back to the negotiating table next week and strike a deal.