COVID-19 Diagnostic Testing Is About To Really Rev Up

Cheap, rapid antigen tests may be on the way—and the FDA has finally approved test pooling.


The daily number of COVID-19 diagnostic tests have been increasing, but this expansion has not been able to keep up with demand as the virus continues to spread across many parts of the country. The resulting test shortages—and week-long lags in receiving test results—are crippling the test, trace, and voluntary isolation efforts needed to curb the pandemic. But good testing news may be on the horizon.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the technology conglomerate 3M are now collaborating to roll out a highly accurate antigen test that delivers results within 10 minutes via a paper-based device, somewhat analogous to the way at-home pregnancy tests now work. The MIT/3M test would be an improvement on the point-of-care antigen tests currently offered by Becton Dickinson and Quidel Corporation, which must be scanned by proprietary machines to make diagnoses.

Antigen tests work by detecting the presence of coronavirus proteins using specific antibodies embedded on a test strip coated with nasal swab samples. One huge advantage is that antigen tests can detect COVID-19 infections not only in patients showing symptoms but also in pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic people. The MIT press release notes that "the Covid-19 test would not need to be administered in a medical setting." This suggests that the tests could eventually be sold directly to consumers for at-home diagnoses. Once the test is sufficiently validated, 3M plans "to produce millions of the affordable, accurate tests each day." The researchers think this will be possible by the late summer or early fall.

In the meantime, the Food and Drug Administration has finally approved pool testing as a stop-gap measure to address the shortage of COVID-19 diagnostic tests. The commercial testing company Quest Diagnostics is now allowed to pool samples from four individuals and test the combined samples for COVID-19 infections. If the result comes back negative, no further testing is done. If it is positive, the samples from the four individuals are tested to identify who is infected. This pooling speeds up testing and conserves scarce testing chemicals and swabs.

If all goes well, ramped-up testing, near-universal masking, and maintained social distancing measures may enable Americans to enjoy a respite from the COVID-19 scourge by the fall.