When Nicky went out looking for a rapid antigen test (RAT) in mid-January, she thought she’d be getting in ahead of the ball. There was a chance her husband had been exposed to COVID-19 at work, and she wanted to “pre-empt the situation” by securing some of the at-home testing kits before both of them became too symptomatic to go out in public.
“They [RATs] had been sold out all over the area ever since things exploded across Queensland,” Nicky, who lives in the far north of Australia and asked to be referred to under a pseudonym for privacy reasons, told VICE. “I haven't needed one before, [but] it's pretty pointless to try and get one anyway in this area because there are none.”
Queensland, like almost every other Australian state and territory, is in the vice grip of a troubling double threat. On the one hand: a runaway surge of COVID cases off the back of the latest Omicron wave, which over the past few months has flooded the nation’s public health system and severed supply chains. On the other: an ongoing drought of RAT kits, which have fast become the only reasonable way for people to determine whether they’re infected with the highly contagious strain. Patients seeking free, state-supplied PCR tests are being forced to queue for several hours in many parts of the country, and waiting as long as seven days for results – during which time they are expected to self-quarantine.
As cases skyrocket and fear of contagion spreads, increasingly rare RATs are becoming harder and harder to procure. Upon entering the pharmacist, Nicky thought she was in luck. Sitting on the shelves were racks of single-packet, oral fluid saliva tests. Then she saw the price tag: $90 AUD ($65 USD) a piece.
“I walked straight out without buying a test,” she said. “There were other people in the shop and I didn’t feel like picking a fight; it's a small town. [But] I haven’t gone back there since.”
“I’m sincerely hoping they changed the prices.”
Nicky isn't alone. As RAT supply plummets and demand continues to spike, opportunistic sellers and resellers are capitalising by peddling the kits at extortionate prices. Australia’s competition regulator, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), declared this week that it had ”significant concerns about the retail price of rapid antigen tests, reportedly often costing between $20 to 30 per test and sometimes over $70 a test through smaller retail outlets.”
In one instance, tests were listed for sale on an online marketplace for more than $1,000 a piece. To put that into perspective, wholesale prices for the kits typically range between $3.95 and $11.45 per test.
“At the extreme end, we have received reports or seen media coverage of tests costing up to $500 for two tests through online marketplaces, and over $70 per test through convenience stores, service stations and independent supermarkets, which is clearly outrageous,” ACCC Chair Rod Sims said in a statement. “Only a few weeks ago tests were readily available at most chemists and supermarkets for around $10 for a single test … Any test costing more than $30, even with supply constraints, is almost certainly too expensive and would seem to be taking advantage of the current circumstances.”
The competition watchdog is now working alongside the Therapeutics Goods Administration (TGA) and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to stamp out the practice, and has announced harsh punishments for those found to be selling RATs at marked-up prices. Retailers face potential fines of up to $10 million, or 10 percent of the turnover per breach, as the ACCC calls on consumers to report any businesses or individuals that are suspected of price gouging. Nicky has already filed a complaint.
On Friday, the AFP announced that they had launched investigations into at least two reported cases of gouging following referrals from the ACCC, claiming that individuals and businesses who were re-selling COVID tests for more than 20 per cent of the original retail purchase price were in breach of the law and faced criminal charges, including up to five years’ imprisonment or a $66,000 fine.
“The AFP will use its full powers to crack down on RAT price gouging,” AFP Assistant Commissioner Crime Command Nigel Ryan said in a statement. “Not only is price gouging of RATs unethical but it is illegal, and the AFP will use its significant resources to ensure it protects the public from the unlawful greed of others.”
While many are having to pay through the nose as a result of that “unlawful greed,” countless others are being priced out of the market altogether – forcing them to either self-diagnose and self-isolate, often at the cost of income and financial support, or turn a blind eye and continue engaging with their friends, family and community while potentially infectious. Mandates preventing people from going to work or school without a negative RAT are further complicating the matter and driving people deeper into desperation.
“[The test kits] are out of the shop before you can blink, or they’re ridiculously expensive,” said Nicky. “On one of our local Facebook community pages people are actively offering to pay individuals to sell them their test at whatever cost, because they need them for work or school and can't obtain them.”
This isn’t the first time pandemic profiteers have cashed in on COVID anxiety while medical supplies are low.
In September 2020, VICE uncovered a number of vendors who were advertising at-home COVID testing kits on darknet marketplaces – one of whom claimed he’d made more than $1.4 million selling them to under-resourced hospitals. Months before that, in the early stages of the pandemic, VICE found multiple vendors on similar marketplaces selling what they claimed to be the blood of recovered COVID-19 patients for nearly $16,000 per litre, promising prospective buyers “a life immunity against coronavirus.” And in December 2020, VICE discovered multiple other darknet vendors who appeared to be selling doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to global customers for as much as $1,300 a piece.
Australia’s RAT test gouging is different, insofar as it’s happening in plain view and within the sphere of the licit market – but the trend is nothing new. While the ACCC is honing in and targeting those who are opportunistically ratcheting up the prices of at-home testing kits, though, it’s also important to zoom out and take stock of the ways in which the Australian government contributed to the mess.
First, and perhaps most significant, was the government’s failure to order and import a sufficient supply of RATs. Last September, several months before Omicron arrived in Australia, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) warned senior executives in the federal health department that they needed to develop a national strategy for procuring RATs, but was told that the government did not want to intervene in the private market.
“I asked the question of them because I knew what was happening in other countries, and we needed to transition, so what was the plan?” AMA’s vice president Chris Moy told Guardian Australia. “We needed to get a lot of [RATs], and we needed a really clear strategy to transition. It was so bloody obvious. They have been caught short because of Omicron and the number of cases, but the bottom line is if you are going to rely on the private market in a health emergency you need to make pretty damn sure that they are ready.”
This, coupled with the federal government’s COVID strategy to “live with the virus,” has resulted in the aforementioned double threat, and spurred a growing chorus of voices calling on the Morrison government to supply free RATs to households around the country – a measure that’s being implemented in the U.S. and U.K.
Last month, Morrison pushed back against the idea of universally accessible RATs because he felt Australia was at “another stage of this pandemic … where we can’t just go round and make everything free.”
"This is not a medicine, it is a test. And so there is a difference between those two things,” he said at the time. "They are available at $15 and we are working on arrangements … for concessional access to those who are pensioners and others.”
“For all other casual uses – you would just like to get a test or something like that – well, that is what the private market is for.”
That “private market” is now doing its thing: vendors have ratcheted up prices based on the simple economic tenet of supply and demand. Morrison, meanwhile, continues to cop criticism over the government’s persistent failure to shore up Australia’s national RAT supply, while he himself blames a global shortage over difficulties in sourcing the tests.
“The rapid antigen tests are in short supply all around the world,” Morrison told 2GB Radio this week. “This is not something that is unique to Australia going through it. It's part of dealing with Omicron.”
More recently, Morrison and the Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt came under fire after multiple businesses claimed they were told by suppliers that their orders of RATs would be delayed because they had been redirected at the request of the government – allegations the government staunchly denied and is threatening to report to the ACCC. Even the states have grown suspicious of one another, with South Australia asking the ACCC to investigate the possibility that NSW and Victoria had requisitioned RATs that were meant for them.
Whatever the cause, Rod Sims from the ACCC claimed that the nationwide shortage was directly responsible for the increase in prohibitively expensive tests, telling reporters that “Clearly we are facing a supply issue that’s driving the price issue – there is no doubt about that.”
This supply issue is becoming so dire that the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) released a media statement on Thursday declaring that “Pharmacists [are] at breaking point with ongoing RAT shortages.”
“The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia is calling for patience and understanding from the general public amidst ongoing rapid antigen tests … shortages,” the statement read. “Extreme stock shortages and unprecedented demand continues to place significant strain on pharmacists and pharmacy staff.”
PSA National President Chris Freeman added that “even though the Federal Government has secured additional RAT stock, supply is still expected to be sparse until mid-February.”
“In the meantime, our pharmacists are working around the clock to source their own supply of these tests, whilst juggling a huge number [of] inquiries from patients about stock availability,” Freeman said. “PSA and other health bodies were stressing the importance of securing RAT supply and establishing effective distribution networks with [the] government over six months ago.”
Morrison has promised that the RATs are coming, with the federal government having ordered more than 80 million kits for delivery in January and February and states having ordered approximately 130 million. According to the Department of Health, supply is expected to “normalise over the coming weeks.” But Omicron is still rampant, Morrison is still reisting calls to make RATs free and the private market is still bleeding consumers dry in the middle of a global pandemic.
Until something is done about the issue of supply and, more broadly, accessibility, many Australians have little choice but to sit tight and pay the going price. Or, alternatively, to do as Nicky and countless others have done: go without and hope for the best.
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