Several different COVID tests are now available for purchase at retail pharmacies in Massachusetts and across the country; but experts stress that, as more self-diagnostic kits become commercially available, officials should not abandon widespread free testing in this late stage of the pandemic.
And while the new rapid at-home testing products provide more options and on-demand results, relaxing testing rates or deviating from existing testing protocols could hurt progress made in the pandemic, experts warn, especially in lower-income communities — which are also among the communities hardest hit by COVID — where residents may not be able to afford the over-the-counter tests that range in price from $25 to more than $100 for one test.
The way forward continues to be rigorous and widespread free testing, experts say.
“I think a major part of pandemic control is testing that’s available to everyone,” said Mark Siedner, an infectious diseases physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Regulators in the U.S. approved the first at-home rapid test for emergency use back in December. Last week, CVS Pharmacy announced that three separate self-diagnostic tests were to be made available for purchase at select stores in several states across the northeast, including Massachusetts.
The COVID tests include the Ellume COVID-19 Home Test, the Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Self Test and the Pixel by Labcorp PCR Test Home Collection Kit. All three tests were given emergency use authorization, do not require a prescription and are can be used by both symptomatic and asymptomatic customers, the pharmacy said. The tests are not covered by insurance and should not act a diagnosis for acute COVID infection.
The Ellume and Abbott BinaxNOW kits contain an antigen test, or a so-called rapid test that targets specific proteins on the surface of the coronavirus to deliver results very quickly, but that may not always be accurate. The Labcorp test is a polymerase chain reaction test that targets viral RNA — the coronavirus’s genetic material — which are far more accurate due to their higher sensitivity.
A positive result from an antigen test suggests the person is likely currently infected with the virus and therefore contagious. Experts say antigens are faster and less expensive than molecular tests, which are more accurate and may detect if a person had COVID before, but is no longer infectious.
Experts hail the commercialization of COVID tests as a positive step in the pandemic with the caveat that testing rates remain at levels that best capture the presence of infections in communities.
“The truth is that most of our diagnostics tests still require a laboratory” to process test results, Siedner said. “But every testing modality that we can get out there … is a benefit.”
And as more and more Americans get the COVID vaccine, experts are cautioning that vaccinations should not replace testing as an infection control strategy.
“Yes vaccines are here & cases are lower. But we can’t be blind to the virus and testing is our eyes,” said Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who has pushing for better rapid testing technology. “The more eyes the better. Especially when convenient & fast.”