Our team has written a lot about the appeal of fast-responding though not-super-accurate Covid-19 tests. This week, these rapid-responding tests moved forward. The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency-use authorization to Abbott Laboratories for a $5 rapid-response Covid-19 test. The company says it will start shipping tens of millions of the newly authorized tests in September and plans to increase production to 50 million tests in October. The U.S. government also announced a $750 million deal to buy 150 million rapid Covid-19 tests from Abbott. This is all very good news as it will greatly increase the U.S.’s rapid testing capacity.
Not only are fast-responding tests appealing because they diagnose people quickly, but experts say they can play a critical role in stopping chains of Covid-19 transmission.
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Abbott’s test is a small, $5 antigen test that turns around results in 15 minutes. While there are important critiques that this kind of antigen testing is not as effective as PCR testing, antigen tests are good at detecting people when they are at the most infectious point in their illness and without remaining positive for weeks or months after infection.
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The test currently remains approved for clinical use by health care professionals in specific environments and is available for people with symptoms. That means it will not provide the kind of at-home testing scenario (people doing a test every morning with their coffee) that many scientists have been hoping for since it must be ordered by a physician and will not be over the counter. However, one of the loudest advocates in favor of a cheap, at-home version of this kind of testing capacity, Michael Mina, MD, PhD, a Harvard epidemiologist and immunologist, still calls the approval a “massive step forward.”
Mina shared on Twitter that he’s still enthusiastic about this approval because “this is a $5 paper-strip type test that gives near immediate (15 minutes) accurate results at the time when we need to know most that someone is positive — when that person is likely to be transmitting virus.”
“So this isn’t necessarily the test that is now going to open up frequent testing at the population level and induce herd effects until a vaccine comes along,” he adds. “But this a great start to get this type of test into use for evaluation to eventually get us where we need to be.”
The test uses a nasal swab (future tests like these may use saliva), but it’s not the same kind of really deep nasopharyngeal swab testing people have experienced so far. It’s simple and pain-free, and as Mina adds, “a great swab for home use, simple to perform on your own — once home use becomes available :).”