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.
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’).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 strip.Companies and academic research labs are also rolling out other tests that are faster, cheaper and more user-friendly than standard PCR assays, although they are not being produced on the same scale as antigen tests. Some of these other tests use the gene-editing tool CRISPR to zero in on genetic snippets of the coronavirus. Others are quicker variants of the PCR test that use different reagents, meaning they’re not limited by the same supply-chain problems. Saliva-based PCR tests, for example, are being used as screening tools in universities and for professional basketball teams.Mina and his colleagues have used statistical models to assess this strategy. In a preprint updated on 8 September, they suggest that testing people twice a week with a relatively insensitive test could be more effective at curbing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 than are more-accurate tests done once every two weeks1. Another study that modelled different scenarios for safely reopening university campuses reported similar findings4. There are also fertility tests.