Rapid, inexpensive testing is the real solution to the crew change Covid-19 crisis

Mitul Dave from AlphaRize Management on one way to ensure seafarers can get home.

The crew change crisis continues to build with Covid-19 being a moving target. Latest mutations of the virus have now travelled from UK, South Africa and Brazil to the USA, as well as other countries. Progress has certainly been made by the latest initiative of The Neptune Declaration and is a positive collaborative step amongst stakeholders to bring forth the issues faced by our seafarers. Nonetheless, some of the protocols suggested in the declaration are still not airtight.

One of the primary factors in combatting the COVID pandemic is the ability to identify carriers of the virus. With many exhibiting no signs of infection, timing is critical. What is needed for an industry where scheduling is inherently important, the ability to immediately clear a crew or port workers as COVID free is paramount.

Take for instance the 72-hour PCR test done before boarding the aircraft or the need to transport crew members to “clinics” to get tested or the lack of testing done at quarantine hotels. What about instances where crew can get infected on the plane, at the airport, in the agent’s car, at the clinic, at the hotel or during their final transit to the vessel? How does the gangway crew know for certain that the person entering the vessel is indeed Covid19 free? Does the Master of the vessel have the certainty that the pilot who brought the vessel alongside was free of Covid19, despite furnishing a 72-hour old certificate? Most importantly, have viral mutations been identified by the testing method in use?

“Gold standard best practices” that insist on the existing 72-hour pre-testing requirements before boarding a vessel or airplane have massive security gaps in them. One needs to be tested just prior to boarding to be effective, not three days without supervision. And even these requirements are different around the world, providing a patchwork of more gaps that give the virus plenty of opportunities to spread. The ONLY way to beat this virus is to break its chain of infection, as was successfully demonstrated by New Zealand & Singapore and some smaller islands. Tests should be non-invasive, at the point of entry and exit of a vessel, giving instant results, allowing for appropriate isolation action, within minutes and not after a gap of hours or days.

But there is a solution. We need to be able to test everyone who enters or exits a vessel with a highly accurate, non-invasive test kit that gives results within 3-15 minutes with 100% specificity and zero false negatives. This provides much higher confidence to port jurisdictions about control of Covid19 onboard and helps in easing crew movement restrictions. After all, this is a crisis of confidence, not just protocol.

Vaccines have been developed, but there is still a long way to go for the world population to be vaccinated – and realistically, with little certainty that we will be able to vaccinate everyone. There is also uncertainty on the longevity, effectiveness or known after-effects of any of the vaccines. Therefore, it is likely that the maritime industry will have to live with Covid19 for another 9-12 months at the least. In short, now is NOT the time for us to relax our guard, even though some vaccines have been developed and are being rolled out.

Testing still needs to continue aggressively, and with major improvements such as those offered by the Rapid Antigen Test Kit. Lab work that takes hours or days to get results is far too long, and the process cumbersome. We need instant results now.

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