COVID-19 Testing is Still Expensive and Inefficient. It Doesn’t Have to Be

August 28, 2020
Weekly Columns

With more and more people headed back to schools, universities and workplaces, we need a comprehensive plan to mitigate COVID-19 more than ever. In fact, we already have the technology for widespread, at-home testing. Why is it not more available?

Let’s look at the background. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for COVID-19 testing in three categories:

  1. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests that look for viral RNA.
  2. Serum antibody tests that check your blood to determine if you were previously exposed to the virus and have since recovered. I took a test like this when I donated blood and found out that I have the COVID-19 antibodies.
  3. Antigen tests that detect viral proteins specific to the virus.

It’s the third tests, antigen testing, that have the potential to bring our schools and workplaces back up to speed. They’re cheap, accessible and, most importantly, fast. The technology works by testing for fragments of viral proteins in an individual’s nasal cavity or saliva, but can be administered in a non-laboratory setting (think a home, school, workplace) and display a positive or negative result within 10 to 15 minutes, much like a pregnancy test. This would enable us to identify who is infectious, as the antigen test is accurate when the viral load is high enough for a person to be contagious.

I sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn on Aug. 25 urging him to revise guidance for non-laboratory rapid antigen tests, which would allow more paper antigen tests to receive FDA approval. In the interest of public health, time is of the essence and revised guidance would jumpstart production and enable Congress to take funding action to get these tests into people’s homes for daily use.