There are no guarantees the HPV test will be rolled out this year, health officials have said.
The test was expected to be introduced last September, but was delayed until last month, however the Oireachtas Health Committee has been told that no date or target has been set for this year.
Damien McCallion, the national director of the screening services, told the committee the HSE are focusing on dealing with a backlog after it emerged women who have had smear tests are now waiting up to 27 weeks to receive the results.
HPV is a common infection spread through close skin-to-skin contact.
HPV testing is used to look for the presence of human papillomavirus in cervical cells and the tests can detect HPV infections that cause cell abnormalities, sometimes even before cell abnormalities are evident.
Fianna Fail’s Stephen Donnelly asked when they expect the HPV test to be live and available to women in Ireland.
Anne O’Connor, interim director general of the HSE, said she was not able to provide a date.
Asked whether it is possible to introduce the new test in 2019, Mr McCallion said: “I don’t want to get into speculation, we are focused on getting it as quickly as possible.”
He explained that a tender for the provision of a new HPV testing service will be advertised soon and that the HSE is increasing the capacity for testing in partnership with the Coombe Hospital.
Mr McCallion told committee members that there was a “real risk” of going to market and not receiving a response because of the ongoing challenges.
During leaders’ questions, both Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty raised concerns about the HPV delay.
Ms O’Connor said the HSE remains “concerned” at the length of time being taken for reporting of cervical smears.
It emerged there are 78,000 women women waiting up to 27 weeks to receive their smear test results.
“In 2018 around 370,000 women presented to the programme, an increase from 280,000 in 2017,” she explained.
In April last year, Minister for Health Simon Harris introduced free out-of-cycle smears.
“This increase of 90,000 was as a result of the uptake of the out of cycle smear test and more women presenting to the programme, which would in normal circumstances be a positive step,” Ms O’Connor added.
“We have worked with existing private providers, other private providers and public service providers in other countries to try and grow our laboratory capacity.
“Some of our existing providers have managed to reduce the wait times and we continue to work with others to try and find additional capacity.
“While we continue to pursue active leads this has proved very challenging due to the global shortage in cytology.”
Sinn Fein’s Louise O’Reilly, chair of the committee, queried what advice the minister received before making the offer last year.
Mr McCallion said: “The source of the advice that the minister would have been from officials in the Department of Health, including the chief medical officer.
“If you are saying to me, was a full capacity analysis performed, was a full review of all the capacity and the global potential to increase that done, no it wasn’t.
“There was a very worthwhile and honourable desire to try to respond to the anxiety that was out there and some of it was based on misinformation.”
Dr Peter McKenna, clinical director of Women’s and Infants Programme, told the committee he was concerned about the waiting time for test results, saying it was “far from ideal”.
He said that the women who went for the “reassuring test” would probably have a lower incidence of abnormality.
“Of course there will be women in that group (78,000) that will have abnormal smears,” he added.
“The natural history of survival cancer is that there is a lead in time of 10 to 15 years and most of those women who have abnormal smears will be a long way from developing cervical cancer but there will be some women who are nearer the stage of transitioning from pre-invasive to invasive.
“It will be foolhardy to say there is no risk.”