Login for faster access to the best deals. Click here if you don't have an account.

Fast coronavirus tests: what they can and can’t do Professional

1 month ago Multimedia Battambang   14 views

$ --

  • img
Location: Battambang
Price: $ --

The United States leads the world in COVID-19 deaths but lags behind many countries — both large and small — in testing capacity. That could soon change.

At the end of August, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency-use approval to a new credit-card-sized testing device for the coronavirus that costs US$5, gives results in 15 minutes and doesn’t require a laboratory or a machine for processing. The United States is spending $760 million on 150 million of these tests from health-care company Abbott Laboratories, headquartered in Abbott Park, Illinois, which plans to ramp up production to 50 million per month in October.

The tests detect specific proteins — known as antigens — on the surface of the virus, and can identify people who are at the peak of infection, when virus levels in the body are likely to be high. Proponents argue that this could be a game changer. Antigen tests could help to keep the pandemic at bay, because they can be rolled out in vast numbers and can spot those who are at greatest risk of spreading the disease. These tests are also a key element in the testing strategies of other countries, such as India and Italy.

Antigen assays are much faster and cheaper than the gold-standard tests that detect viral RNA using a technique called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). But antigen tests aren’t as sensitive as the PCR versions, which can pick up minuscule amounts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

This difference raises some concerns among specialists, who worry that covid-19 antigen tests will miss infectious people and result in outbreaks in countries that have largely controlled coronavirus transmission. Others view the lower sensitivity as an attribute, because some people who receive positive PCR test results are infected, but are no longer able to spread the virus to others. So antigen tests could shift the focus to identifying the most infectious people.

At present, antigen tests are administered by trained professionals, but some companies are developing versions that are simple enough to be used at home — similar to pregnancy tests.

“Making the tests faster, cheaper, easier is definitely the goal — and I think the antigen test is the way to get there,” says Martin Burke, a chemist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is co-developing rapid tests, including antigen-based assays. “This is by no means the perfect solution, it’s just the fastest thing we could get going now,” he says.

What tests are there and how do they work?

Tests for COVID-19 fall into two categories: diagnostic tests such as PCR and antigen assays, which detect parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and covid-19 antibody tests that sense molecules that people produce when they have been infected by the virus. Antibodies can take several days to develop after an infection and often stay in the blood for weeks after recovery, so covid-19 neutralising antibody tests have limited use in diagnosis (see ‘Catching COVID-19’).

The high-sensitivity PCR tests are almost 100% accurate in spotting infected people, when they are administered properly. But such tests generally require trained personnel, specific reagents and expensive machines that take hours to provide results.

Countries such as South Korea and New Zealand have succeeded in boosting PCR-based testing, but scaling up these tests has proved difficult elsewhere. The United States, for example, has seen a slow and poorly coordinated response to outbreaks, faulty tests from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and problems with the supply chain. All of this has hindered efforts to collect and process samples for PCR, pushing waiting times to days or even weeks. These delays, along with a lack of tests, have contributed to the rampant spread of COVID-19 across the country, which by 16 September had seen almost 200,000 deaths from the disease.

A typical antigen test starts with a health-care professional swabbing the back of a person’s nose or throat — although companies are developing kits that use saliva samples, which are easier and safer to collect than a swab. The sample is then mixed with a solution that breaks the virus open and frees specific viral proteins. The mix is added to a paper strip that contains an antibody tailored to bind to these proteins, if they’re present in the solution. A positive test result can be detected either as a fluorescent glow or as a dark band on the paper stri