How Accurate are COVID Rapid Tests?
COVID has posed a huge challenge during the last two years, shutting down economies, killing millions and forcing policymakers and citizens all over the world to confront under-resourced healthcare systems.
While frantic efforts were made to develop a vaccine during the first year of the pandemic, the world continued to turn, and that meant we needed to have some form of rapid testing so that we could reduce the spread and still function as a society.
The same logic holds true today, even with a vaccine. After all, even if COVID 19 isn’t as deadly, it can still knock most people on their back for several days, which can lead to huge disruptions. If you only find out you’re sick several days after you’ve contracted the virus, that is several days in which you can infect a huge number of people.
In this context, the availability and accuracy of a rapid covid test is extremely important. So, how accurate is rapid antigen testing or molecular testing? Let’s find out!
What type of tests are there?
The two main tests that are on the market are PCR tests and rapid antigen tests.
The first type, the PCR test, stands for “polymerase chain reaction” test. Some refer to these as molecular tests or diagnostic tests. Molecular based tests like the PCR test can help diagnose COVID-19 by detecting the genetic material of the coronavirus. The CDC considers a molecular test to be the best type of test for diagnosis.
A rapid antigen test works slightly differently. It can discover if someone has COVID-19 by searching for certain molecules found on the surface of the virus. These tests are convenient, and can provide results in as little as 15 minutes. They also don’t require lab analysis. Unfortunately, the downside is that rapid tests aren’t always as accurate as PCR tests analyzed in a lab.
How are tests performed?
These tests can be done at home, or by a medical professional. In both cases, a cotton swab is inserted into your nose or throat to collect mucus and cells. It can be uncomfortable! By applying your sample to a strip of paper that changes color if you test positive for COVID-19, you can get relatively quick results.
However, despite the speed, these rapid tests are not as accurate as lab tests, because they require more of the virus in your sample to report a positive result. This means that if the amount of mucus and cells you collected wasn’t done perfectly, a rapid test could provide you with a false negative result.
This means that you will test negative for the virus when you actually have it. That false negative antigen test result could lead you to infect more people while you’re still asymptomatic.
At-home test accuracy
In August of 2021, researchers compared the accuracy of the at-home variety rapid tests to the lab tests.
Even though the rapid at-home tests are known to be less effective than lab tests, researchers discovered that those that took the at-home tests within three days of experiencing symptoms had a 96% chance of having their COVID infection correctly identified. The study also found that these at home tests correctly identified 97% of those that didn’t have COVID.
That’s a very high accuracy number!
Can I trust rapid antigen tests?
The answer is yes.
By relying on the data from the research above, it is clear that while PCR tests are the more accurate option, self-testing is still a valid, accurate and reliable method of keeping COVID-19 in check.
What test should I use for travel?
Testing for travel has become fairly commonplace, and in most cases, speed is a key factor, since some airlines will not let you fly with them unless you have a test that was performed in the 24 hours prior to your departure.
This means that PCR tests that must be sent to a lab are not always an option, either because of how long it takes to process those tests in the lab, or because of the sheer cost of getting those lab tests done. In many cases of travel within North America, a rapid PCR test can cost more than a plane ticket!
That’s why, as long as the national or state destination has rules in place that condone it, a rapid COVID test for travel is your best bet. Providers like MEDLEE provide you with digital certification for travel quickly and easily!
How does a rapid test for travel work?
MEDLEE staff will contact you to book one of their virtual / at-home rapid antigen tests. As soon as you test negative for COVID-19, you can be on your way. The tests only take 15 minutes to get results, you can take these tests from anywhere in the world, and best of all, you’ll receive a travel document from an approved health care facility in Ontario, Canada the minute you’re in the clear.
Note: Some countries require polymerase chain reaction tests (PCR testing), some require molecular tests, and others may require a nucleic acid amplification test. Consult the travel authorities or their websites for more information on requirements.