Since the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, getting a coronavirus test has been a must for visiting a health care center or a dedicated testing site. This process sometimes involves long lines and waiting a week or more to get results.
Americans now have the option of taking rapid antigen tests from the comfort of their home. Several tests are available without a prescription which gives results in about 15-30 minutes.
The demand for these tests has surged in recent months. As the highly infectious Omicron variant has started surging across the country, the manufacturers have begun to ramp up their production as they prepare to meet the upcoming wave of demand for rapid antigen tests.
Although these rapid antigen test have limitations, they are no less than a potent weapon; particularly in the hands of people who know how to use them.
Knowledge in the right hands can help those making better and more informed decisions giving them unparalleled powers.
WHAT KIND OF TESTS ARE AVAILABLE IN THE MARKET?
Several rapid antigen tests are available in the market to be sold over the counter, such as Abbott BinaxNOW, Ellume COVID-19, QuidelQuickVue, etc. Many of these work on detecting small viral proteins, called antigens. These tests require rubbing a shallow nasal swab inside your nostrils and then exposing the swab to a few drops of chemicals, providing results in 15-30 minutes.
The tests themselves are relatively straightforward, but each involves a slight variation in the procedure to be followed to the word.
HOW ACCURATE ARE RAPID ANTIGEN TESTS?
Polymerase Chain Reaction tests, typically considered the gold standard for detecting the virus, are usually set in a laboratory and involve making multiple copies of the virus's genetic material. This process helps the PCR tests to detect even the minute traces of the virus. Rapid antigen tests, which do not involve the multiplication of the virus, are less likely to detect the presence of the infection. And even in the initial phases of the disease where the virus has not replicated widely, the test could return a false result.
Some of these at-home rapid antigen tests have a sensitivity of roughly 85 percent, which means they can only give relevant results for 85 people in 100. And in some studies, their real-world performance has been even lower.
In multiple studies, the tests are more sensitive in people with symptoms than individuals without symptoms and those who are most sensitive during the first week of the said infection.
In conclusion, these tests are excellent at flagging people with high viral loads, and thus these individuals are more than likely to transmit the virus to others. And using these tests regularly to routinely screen students or employees can compensate for their lower sensitivity. A recent study concluded that when they tested infected students and employees for three days, these rapid antigen tests successfully identified 98 out of 100 trials, on par with the RT PCR tests.
WHEN AND HOW TO USE THE RAPID ANTIGEN TESTS?
Rapid at-home tests are a viable option for individuals who have been potentially exposed to the virus, who want to know the difference between a sore throat and COVID-19, or who want a bit of assurance before visiting a vulnerable relative or after traveling to a virus hot spots, some experts claimed.
People with symptoms can immediately take a rapid antigen test, but those exposed to the virus should wait three to five days. Testing for the traces of the virus when the infection is in the initial stages with not much viral load can lead to a false negative.
Some businesses and organizations may not accept the results of at-home tests when proof of a negative test result is required.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RAPID ANTIGEN TESTS AND PCR TESTS. IS ONE SUPERIOR COMPARED TO THE OTHER?
RT PCR Tests, available in most pharmacies, are great in specific circumstances and not so great in others. Rapid Antigen tests detect COVID-19 when people with more virus particles in their system. But a negative antigen test does not guarantee that the individual has not been infected.
PCR tests are far more sensitive compared to antigen tests. They're able to detect even the minuscule amounts of the viral concentration, and that too sooner. And that is why these are considered the end all be all tests to diagnose COVID-19.
WHAT IF YOU TESTED NEGATIVE ON A RAPID ANTIGEN TEST?
These tests work best when they are taken regularly. If somehow you test negative after a plausible exposure to the virus or after developing the symptoms of the COVID-19, you should take a follow-up test a day or two later.
But until the tests become cheaper and the availability is improved, it may not be easy to persuade people to use them this frequently.
WHAT IF YOU TESTED POSITIVE ON A RAPID ANTIGEN TEST?
These tests are precise, which means that they generate relatively few false reports. Yet, a positive result is may likely be a false positive when the prevalence of the virus is low. In these instances, taking a second test can be encouraged.
But experts recommend taking the necessary precautions before you get the test results. If you test positive, you should isolate yourself, monitor your symptoms, and seek medical care if required.
Consumers should also report positively to their health authorities.
A rapid antigen test is a valuable tool to have in your arsenal to protect you and your loved ones from this highly infectious and contagious virus. As the vaccine's protection wears out with time, newer variants of the virus will be more contagious than the variant that the previous vaccine was based upon. And even if you are vaccinated, you are not entirely safe in the longer run. Rapid Antigen tests are essential, but as it is in common knowledge, there are specific precautions that every individual has to follow as we all have a social responsibility on our shoulders:
- Get vaccinated and adhere to the local vaccination guidelines.
- Wear a mask properly.
- Maintain social distancing.
- Isolate yourself if you show symptoms of the infection.
- Avoid gatherings/crowds.
- Please keep your hands clean with alcohol-based sanitizer or wash them with soap.