En español | Forget the long lines and the even longer nasal swabs. Now people with or without COVID-19 symptoms can purchase rapid and relatively affordable over-the-counter coronavirus test kits from the store and test themselves at home.
Abbott Laboratories has started shipping its BinaxNow antigen self-test to CVS, Walgreens and Walmart locations across the country, the company announced on April 19. The box of two tests, priced at $23.99, is also being sold by the retailers online. And by the end of May, Ellume plans to have its over-the-counter (OTC) COVID-19 home test kit ($38.99) stocked in most CVS retail locations. Select stores are already selling them.
Both are antigen tests — meaning they look for specific proteins from the virus — and both have received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A doctor's prescription is not required to purchase the rapid home-test kits.
Testing still needed despite vaccines
Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a vocal proponent of at-home testing, said while the “fervor” for COVID-19 testing has somewhat diminished, accessible and affordable testing options are still key to ending the pandemic — even as more Americans get vaccinated.
"[Vaccination] doesn't mean that we can let go of all control measures. And one of those control measures is to know if you're infectious, especially before you walk into a hospital or nursing home,” Mina said during an April 20 webinar, which was cohosted by the T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
It's also important to keep in mind that vaccinated people can potentially still get a coronavirus infection and may be able to pass the virus on to others, possibly sickening susceptible individuals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"And there are a lot of people who haven't been vaccinated in this country for lots of different reasons,” Mina pointed out. To date, 26 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated and 40 percent has received at least one dose of a two-shot series, CDC data shows.
"So I think that it behooves us as scientists and public health practitioners to continue asking the question: Does a vaccinated person have such low risk of transmitting that we don't need to evaluate whether or not they're potentially positive before they go and interact with a vulnerable individual?” Mina added.
Tests deliver results in 15 minutes
These now-available tests are different from other at-home test kits that retailers have been selling for months now, and that's because they don't need to be mailed to a lab for analysis, which can take days. Abbott's test requires a “minimally invasive” nasal swab (not the long swab that goes to the top of the nose), which interacts with a liquid solution on a small test card. Anyone 15 or older can administer the test him- or herself, and it can be done on children as young as 2. The card's result window indicates whether the swab is positive or negative for COVID-19 in about 15 minutes.
Schools, nursing homes and underserved communities have been using Abbot's OTC test for months now, as part of a contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
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Ellume's at-home test is a little more high-tech. It also uses a nasal swab and a reagent solution, but the test delivers results via a smartphone app in 15 minutes.
The cost of these tests and the technology required to use them may be a barrier for many. But Mina, who has long pushed for at-home test strips that cost $1 or less and can be taken several times a week, said: “This is one more step on the pathway towards that.”
Convenient testing helps catch the contagious
While lab-processed polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests have been considered the gold standard of COVID-19 testing, Mina said many of the rapid antigen tests “have gotten very, very good — on par with PCR,” and that the likelihood of getting a false result is relatively low. That said, if you test positive for COVID-19 and think it could be a false positive, test yourself again. (Abbott's kit includes two tests and recommends serial testing.)
Individuals who test negative and continue to experience COVID-like symptoms should follow up with their health care provider, Abbott says. The CDC also has guidance on what individuals should do following a negative or positive at-home test.
"What's important is that this test really is intended to catch people when they're most contagious,” Mary Rodgers, a principal scientist at Abbott, told AARP. “And so that's what it does a really good job at. It has over 95 percent detection rate when people are in that really contagious period of an infection, whether they have symptoms or not.”
Is home testing here to stay?
If your local store is sold out of the at-home tests, check back soon. Abbott says its manufacturing facility has the capacity to deliver tens of millions of tests per month and plans to expand its distribution to more retailers in the near future.
"We're going to continue to need available tests so that we can determine who may be contagious and prevent outbreaks as the vaccine continues to roll out,” Rodgers said.
Ellume is also working to scale up production of its at-home test. The company recently struck a $230-plus million deal with the U.S. government to deliver 8.5 million COVID-19 home tests that will be distributed across the country.
In addition to the Abbott and Ellume tests, the FDA has authorized a few other OTC COVID-19 home tests, including a rapid antigen test from Quidel. The company's website says it will be available for purchase soon.
And Harvard's Mina said we can expect more growth in the at-home testing space — even beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
"What COVID has done is, it's accelerated these tools and technologies to actually become useful for other things, too,” he said. “For flu in the future, we might end up seeing rapid tests become very important tools as well.”
Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.