SINGAPORE: The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is trialling the use of antigen rapid tests (ART) for large-scale events where faster turnaround of results is critical.
This includes events like graduation parades and important conferences, or when rapid contact tracing is needed after a COVID-19 case is reported.
Graduation parades, like those marking the end of Basic Military Training, are currently being held in the form of smaller, decentralised ceremonies.
“One possible application would be graduation ceremonies, where you have like your passing out parades, graduations for some of our cadets, or graduates of courses,” Senior Minister of State for Defence Zaqy Mohamad told reporters on Tuesday (Oct 27).
“So these are plans in which we can potentially test out. How far, how soon, I think it is something we are still evaluating. But I think ultimately before we roll it out, it's about making sure that it is effective and meets our purposes.”
Samples for ART are collected through a middle turbinate test, which is said to be more comfortable as a swab is inserted halfway through the nostril.
In conventional nasopharyngeal tests, a swab is inserted to the back of the nostril.
READ: COVID-19: Singapore to pilot pre-event rapid testing from mid-October so more events can safely resume
This comes as Singapore starts to pilot pre-event testing with antigen rapid tests, which can return results in about half an hour.
The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) swabs, considered the definitive test in Singapore as it is more accurate, take about one to two days for results.
Those who test positive through ART will have to undergo a confirmation PCR test.
NEWER METHODS OF TESTING
The SAF has also been trialling newer methods of COVID-19 testing for operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen), so it can test larger numbers and progressively resume more in-camp training (ICT), Mr Zaqy said.
This includes oropharyngeal/middle turbinate (OP/MT) and deep throat saliva (DTS) testing.
“The SAF will have to look at how we apply some of these new developments, whether it provides the right sensitivity for us,” Mr Zaqy added.
“But at the same time, what's more important is to give our NSmen the assurance and the comfort that the SAF is doing its utmost to keep the trainees safe (and allow them to) achieve their objectives when they come back.”
These methods are being tested with smaller groups of servicemen, such as regular trainers who interact across separated groups during training, and full-time national servicemen (NSF) in selected units.
Since September, about 400 NSFs and regulars have gone through DTS testing. About 300 had their results processed through ART.
The OP/MT collection method involves taking a sample from the back of the throat and midway up the nose.
The DTS method is considered least invasive, as it can be self-administered and only requires servicemen to produce 2ml of saliva in a test tube.
It is also cheaper and faster to administer, and reduces manpower requirements as it does not need to be performed by healthcare professionals.
The SAF is assessing the feasibility of deploying these tests on a larger scale, and is considering the equipment, logistics and training involved.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen had told Parliament on Oct 6 that NSmen must take COVID-19 tests from October if they cannot avoid proximity to each other during ICT.
The SAF could use newer methods like OP/MT or DTS that are more suitable for mass testing, Dr Ng had said, adding that trials have shown promise in terms of accuracy and acceptability.
Mr Zaqy said there is no timeline yet for the trials as different methods have different considerations.
“At the same time, you also want to minimise the risk of false positives or false negatives. I would say effectiveness is just one part, but the comfort to our NSmen is another,” he added.
SAFE RESUMPTION OF ICTs
Mr Zaqy was speaking after interacting with NSmen from the 791st Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (SIR) who are going through weapons and skills refresher training as part of their two-week ICT.
About 600 NSmen from the battalion are being tested once a week using conventional nasopharyngeal tests.
READ: SAF to progressively resume NS in-camp training, IPPT from October with COVID-19 safety measures
This is part of routine regular testing for NSmen, trainers and support staff attending ICTs, which have progressively resumed since October.
The testing can be scaled up depending on the prevailing community infection rate. There have been no positive results so far, Mr Zaqy said.
ICTs have also resumed with safe management measures in place, including training in smaller and separate groups, as well as wearing of masks except during strenuous activities.
NSmen are allowed to return to training while waiting for their test results as they are confined to their small groups.
NSMAN WELCOMES NEWER TESTING METHODS
Corporal First Class (CFC) (NS) R Hariprasath, an NSman from 791 SIR, said routine testing is a “good thing to implement”.
“It’s a safety measure to ensure we are not affected by COVID-19,” the 25-year-old said.
Despite that, CFC (NS) Hariprasath said he felt nervous during the nasopharyngeal test as it was his first time being swabbed. But it turned out to be “not painful” and lasted “less than 10 seconds”, he said.
While CFC (NS) Hariprasath has not tried the newer methods of testing, he said he would be open to trying out the deep throat saliva test.
“I think it’s a good idea because I would rather try that than putting the swab in the nose,” he said.
CFC (NS) Hariprasath stated that he was worried when he was first called back for this ICT amid the pandemic, but was reassured when he saw the safety measures in place.
Captain Azri Haron, a company trainer from the Infantry Training Institute, said routine testing for NSmen and trainers is important to reassure both groups and their loved ones that running ICT during a pandemic is safe.
“Other than that, the training standards and outcome will not differ much from times before the pandemic,” the 29-year-old said.
“This is because it is very important for the army to train operationally ready servicemen to be capable and competent for the country’s defence.”
Mr Zaqy said Singapore’s commitment to defence “cannot waver” even as it battles COVID-19.
“This is where we are trying to bring back ICT training into the fold, to ensure that we maintain operational readiness and a high standard of training so that we can continue to defend Singapore,” he added.