$5 COVID-19 test could be a game changer in the US

Abbott’s new antigen test is fast, cheap, and FDA authorized.

Since before the pandemic was even technically a pandemic, the U.S. was already struggling with coronavirus testing — and it’s yet to fully recover.

From faulty tests to shortages to long delays in testing results, the past eight months have featured one problem after another, and those testing issues have no doubt played a role in America having so many COVID-19 cases and deaths.

But the U.S.’s testing woes may finally be coming to an end, as the FDA has issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for a new $5 COVID-19 test that’s fast, accurate, and easy to scale.

Abbott’s $5 COVID-19 Test

The test is called BinaxNOW, and it’s the work of Abbott Laboratories.

The test itself is about the size of a credit card. After a healthcare worker collects a nasal swab from a patient (from the front of the nose, not deep in it), they rub the sample on the card.

The worker then adds a few drops of liquid to the card and closes its lid. Fifteen minutes later, the card will display either one line for a negative result or two lines for a positive result — no specialized equipment required.

The U.S. is buying 150 million of Abbott’s antigen tests.

This is similar to how a standard pregnancy test works, but Abbott’s $5 COVID-19 test isn’t looking for a fertilization-linked hormone — it’s on the hunt for a virus protein fragment, called an antigen.

Typically, antigen tests are less accurate than the standard PCR tests, which look for the coronavirus’s genetic sequence. One antigen test that secured an EUA in May, for example, identified 85% of positive COVID-19 cases compared to the 96% average of 11 PCR tests.

However, Abbott’s $5 COVID-19 test correctly identified 97.1% of positive cases and 98.5% of negative cases, when used on suspected COVID-19 patients within seven days of symptom onset.

In addition to being fast, cheap, and accurate, Abbott’s $5 COVID-19 is also easily scalable.

The company says it will be able to manufacture 50 million of the tests monthly starting in October, and the U.S. has already announced that it is buying 150 million of them — a move that could help the nation finally get a grip on COVID-19 testing.

“The availability of rapid testing for COVID-19 will help support overburdened laboratories, accelerate turnaround times, and greatly expand access to people who need it,” Charles Chiu, a professor of laboratory medicine at UC San Francisco, told Bloomberg.

An At-Home Antigen Test

The FDA authorization stipulates that Abbott’s $5 COVID-19 test must be administered by a healthcare provider at a doctor’s office or similar facility, and only on patients with coronavirus symptoms. This effectively forbids at-home or at-work screening, for now. But the simplicity of the test could make it ideal for mass COVID-19 screening in the future.

This testing could take place in workplaces, schools, or at home, either clearing asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people of infection or letting them know they need to quarantine.

Abbott has even already developed a companion app for the test that displays a QR code linked to a person’s result, which could serve as proof that they’d been tested for the coronavirus within a certain period of time.

“While BinaxNOW is the hardware that makes knowing your COVID-19 status possible, the NAVICA app is the digital network that allows people to share that information with those who need to know,” Abbott CEO Robert B. Ford said in a press release.

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