….When PCR tests cost more than international air travel


As travel rebounds in many parts of the world after excruciating lockdown of air travel occasioned by COVID-19 pandemic, many countries are still hit by high costs of PCR tests-the so-called gold standard, writes, WOLE SHADARE

Air travel hampered

Restarting international travel is vital to supporting the 46 million travel and tourism jobs around the world that rely on aviation.

Meanwhile, high cost of testing will bear heavily on the shape of the travel recovery. It makes little sense for governments to take steps to reopen borders, if those steps make the cost of travel prohibitive to most people.

This has made air travel so expensive for many individuals and families especially in Africa where air travel is considered most times as luxury.

Surviving the pandemic

European airlines are counting on a travel rebound this summer, likewise African carriers after months of COVID-19 restrictions left them struggling with minimum revenues and huge new debts taken on to survive the pandemic.

But any demand for Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests that can cost more than the short flights themselves threatens the recovery.

For example, PCR tests can cost around £140 in Britain. The cost of PCR testing in Britain for international travel in the UK is double that of testing in other European countries according to analysis by Abta, a leading association of travel agents and tour operators and the Airport Operators Association.

Resorting to fake results

In Africa and perhaps in Nigeria, the story is the same as there were reports that high costs of PCR tests fueled procurement of fake test reports, a situation that led to many countries rejecting many of the test results from Nigeria after discovering syndicates helping  many prospective travelers to procure them at very low cost.
Although, the Nigerian government had made testing more credible by certifying some laboratories for the exercise, the cost of testing is still very high, making many people to jettison air travel at least for now until the costs are brought down.

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Inefficiency, high cost keep COVID-19 testing out of reach

Cost variations

An International Air Transport Association (IATA) sampling costs for PCR test (the most frequently required by governments) in some 16 countries showed wide variations by markets and within markets.

Of the markets surveyed, only France complied with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation for the state to bear the cost of testing for travelers. Of the 15 markets where there is a cost for PCR testing to the individual, IATA found the average minimum cost for testing was $90 and the average maximum cost for testing was $208.

Even taking the average of the low-end costs, adding PCR testing to average airfares would dramatically increase the cost of flying for individuals. Pre-crisis, the average one-way ticket, including taxes and charges cost $209 (2019 data).

A $90 PCR test raises the cost by 45 per cent to $290. Add another test on arrival and the one-way cost would leap by 90 per cent to $380.

Assuming that two tests are needed in each direction, the average cost for an individual return-trip could balloon from $400 to $760. The impact of the costs of COVID-19 testing on family travel would be even more severe.

Based on the average ticket prices ($200) and average low-end PCR testing ($90) twice each way, a journey for four that would have cost $1,600 pre-COVID could nearly double to $3, 040-with $1,440 being testing costs.

Demand perilously compromised

IATA Director-General, Willie Walsh stated that as travel restrictions are lifted in domestic markets, they  are seeing strong demand.

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“The same can be expected in international markets. But that could be perilously compromised by testing costs-particularly PCR testing. Raising the cost of any product will significantly stifle demand”.

“The impact will be greatest for short-haul trips (up to 1, 100km) with average fares of $105, the tests will cost more than the flight. That’s not what you want to propose to travelers as we emerge from this crisis. Testing costs must be better managed. That is critical if governments want to save tourism and transport jobs; avoid limiting travel freedoms to the wealthy”.

“We can have a situation where only the rich are able to travel. That would be a shame and a disgrace and everyone in the industry should be pushing back”, he further stated.

In Europe, airlines have called for the competition watchdog to investigate the price of COVID-19 tests for travel, with the travel industry warning that the PCR tests required by the government will in effect block most international holidays this year.

Expert’s view

Managing Director of Finchglow Travels and former President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Mr. Bernard Bankole has lauded the efforts by the United States for free COVID-19 testing in the US, adding that nobody charges one dollar for COVID-19 test in America.

“I got back from America recently. And I did not see America close her borders to any country because they know the importance of holidays. Most of their holiday destinations and recreational centers are open. And they are still preaching that people should be vaccinated. It shows you the importance of recovery and they are recovering from it as quickly as possible”.

Nigerian firm push for COVID-19 test crash

Disturbed by the high cost of COVID-19 tests for people seeking to travel out of the country, an indigenous company, Bundi International Diagnostics Ltd said it would soon unveil a new technology that will crash the cost of such tests in-country.

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The average cost of the COVID-19 test for people travelling out of Nigeria is currently N49, 000 in government-approved laboratories.

Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the company, Bob Udeagha who lamented the high cost of the test, said there is a need to crash the cost to below N5, 000 in view of current economic realities.

He said; “Right now, the COVID-19 test is about N49, 000. In America it is free. COVID-19 test should be free. We want to crash this price to below N5,000 in order to assist Nigerian travellers.

“We have seen and experienced the financial burden placed on many Nigerians, especially those travelling outside of the country and those returning home due to the high cost of taking COVID-19 test which is available in many parts of the world free of charge. To address this issue, our team of researchers believes that many Nigerians are soon going to benefit from this research and partnership that has produced locally manufactured COVID-19 Antigen Detection Rapid Test”.

Last line

It must be said that the restart of international travel needs to be affordable and accessible for everyone so that people can take their much needed overseas holidays and visit families and friends abroad whom they have not seen for such a long time. Governments around the world have to ensure that high costs for COVID-19 testing do not put travel out of reach for individuals and families.

Wole Shadare