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.

NEXT: Department of Homeland Security Reportedly Sending 150 Agents to Chicago in Expansion of Federal Crackdown

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  2. >>as the virus continues to spread across many parts of the country

    are you sure it wasn’t already there and they’re not just using the numbers now to keep you up at night?

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  3. What I want to know is: does this thing spread directly through the air from mouth to mouth (e.g. a choir singing and breathing hard), or does it spread by physical contact (e.g. a healthcare worker touching an infected person with a stethoscope and then touching others)? Because if we knew the answer to that, we could better focus our contact tracing and protective measures (e.g. masks vs hand washing).

    1. The purpose of masks is not to keep you from getting it, but to keep you from spreading it. Say someone with the virus who coughs or sneezes in the grocery store aisle, and you put your hands on something that their virus-laden spit landed on. Then you pick your nose or rub your eyes or whatever. Then you might catch it. But by putting masks on everyone, the mask catches the sick person’s spit and you don’t get sick.

      Or something.

      1. I agree that’s highly plausible. The question is whether it’s true. And it seems like a question that should be easy enough to answer (unscientifically) just by interviewing say 20 people who got the virus. Of course no one can know for sure, but people will have suspicions. And if not them, their caregivers or ‘loved ones’ might have ideas. (I wonder how much of the spread is either intentional or intentionally careless.)

        1. It may or may not catch the cough particles, depending on where the mask is; over the mouth and nose, mouth only, neck, one ear dangling, or pulled away in order to breathe. It also will only (maybe) catch large particles that may be carrying the virus.
          A “cloth face covering” will NOT stop any virus of any type. Only an N95 or better mask, which mere peons are requested NOT to wear is actually effective in catching the virus.
          If you wander over to the CDC web site and poke around, you will find that for EVERY OTHER virus they say there is not enough evidence to recommend masks or recommend against masks. BUT for the magical Communist Chinese Virus alone, a “cloth face covering” is so wonderful is must be mandated.

          1. (Comment relocated by squirrels; reply intended to be below sarcasmic)

          2. The problem with the mask is if you sneeze or cough it changes a gob, which might not travel that far, into a mist that will travel.

      2. Stopping spit may be the end of a given “study,” but it’s not the end of the virus. Spit evaporates, but virions don’t. Without the droplet of spit, the virus is free to penetrate the mask on the next exhalation, and then it’s an aerosol that can remain there for hours and cannot be stopped by a cloth or surgical mask (and even N95s let half of them through).

        The mask thing is based on a somewhat bizarre assumption that COVID is not like other respiratory viruses (like flu) and cannot spread by aerosol. That’s why we got the 6 foot rule and occupancy limits, in addition to the mask rules. It’s now quite certain that COVID is, in fact, just like the other viruses that spread by aerosol, and none of those measures mean anything at all against aerosols. Aerosols float around on air currents for hours, being carried by HVAC systems, perhaps throughout the entire building. Masks, standing 6 feet away, and other such things are useless against aerosols.

        Eventually, those aerosol virions will settle out of the air on surfaces, but they could be anywhere within the building, not just close to the spreader. Then people touch it with their grubby hands, just before they pull their mask down to get some fresh air or back up again, or to scratch a tickle or itch that it caused, placing those virions right in the path that air is taking through the mask, and we know that the mask can’t stop anything as tiny as a virus.

        The “idea” behind masks is absurd, which is why the standard advice was that they are not effective or safe for the general public against respiratory viruses. Masks come with risks, like how they create an ideal breeding ground for opportunistic bacteria, on a surface you’re breathing through an inch from your nose.

        Regular people are even less likely to understand how to prevent bacterial colonization than medical professionals. You’re supposed to throw the mask into a medical waste bin and replace it frequently, but do people do that? When they are paying for their own disposable masks, they are more likely to look at it and decide it looks clean enough and reuse it the next day than to change it four times during the work day. With cloth masks, they’re definitely not thrown out four times a day, and probably only get washed once a week.

        The studies often assume that masks are worn in a proper way, as medical professionals would, but that’s not realistic. Laypeople do not and will not do that. They have to be evaluated in the manner they will actually be used… which is to say that people will touch the masks constantly with their unwashed hands, and they will not change them every couple of hours or less. That’s quite apart from the observation that the whole idea of mask wearing is based on a faulty assumption that aerosol transmission does not occur, which means they don’t even work under the best of circumstances. The way that people actually wear them is clearly hazardous, and it is not wise policy or ethical to require an action that is hazardous to the person and has no benefits whatsoever (other than giving petty tyrants a thrill seeing all those people wearing those absurd things because they said so).

        1. A+ to all of this. Just watching people in public for five minutes gives you the impression that if anything, they are making the problem worse by constantly fucking with the mask.

        2. Very well said AlexS. Almost verbatim what my girlfriend tells me. She’s a nurse that deals with infectious disease specifically.

    2. Never mind that.
      Can you get it through toilet seats, reciting Marx in the park or from thinking happy thoughts?

      1. And exactly what protest issues prohibit virus transmission?

        1. That Science is settled.

  4. 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.

    When do we get respite from the scourge of economy-killing government reactions to the virus?

    1. Second Tuesday in November; if and only if the democrats accept the results of the election.

      1. Hasn’t that other major party been in the White House the whole time we’ve been having this pandemic?

        1. Like in New York?

          1. Or Florida, Arizona, Georgia.

        2. Being intentionally obtuse again I see.

      2. Pretty sure the Democrats and most Republicans will have no trouble accepting the results. Not sure about the President?

    2. I’m told one can drink draino and the respite will arrive shortly.

  5. After having his statistics stolen by Sullum, Bailey bought an article on a college essay website, and put his name on it. Still consumed with rage, Bailey began to plot his revenge. After meticulously studying the tactics used by the feds in Portland, Ron snuck up on Jacob, and clocked him in the back of the head with a wrench. When he recovered, Sullum found he had been locked in a storage closet with a live rattlesnake.

    1. Sorry what? This seems inappropriate to say the least.

      1. You must have missed the first part.

    2. only one?

    3. I can’t wait to read this book.

  6. The commercial testing company Quest Diagnostics is now allowed to pool samples from four individuals and test the combined samples for COVID-19 infections.

    “As long as my blood isn’t mixed with blood from another race…”

  7. How are we supposed to get a respite by slowing down transmission? Won’t that just make the epidemic last even longer? Seriously, what is the end result that the mask promoters are aiming for? I don’t see any way through this except herd immunity. And the sooner the better. The longer this thing is actively circulating the more chances people at serious risk will have at getting it.

    1. We can’t have herd immunity before the election!

      1. Exactly

      2. How about a stampede?

      3. The White Knight doesn’t understand what you mean.

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    3. Exactly. There are two outcomes that end this (and by “end,” it most likely means that it becomes mild and endemic in the population, not eliminated from the face of the earth). One is that the virus simply runs its course through the population, and people either get immune or get dead. Obviously this comes with some collateral damage- the degree of which is a point of debate. But if no vaccine happens, this WILL happen, sooner or later, and it WILL put this thing to bed. Masks, distancing, and everything else only prolong this process. The ONLY gain from these actions in this scenario is to the extent they keep hospitals from being “overrun.” But on the flip side, we should also want to have sufficient cases to keep hospitals near capacity to get through this as quickly as possible (which is desirable, especially as the next flu season approaches). And right now, capacity isn’t an issue at hospitals almost everywhere (despite how the media reports it), so there is zero reason to be ramping up prevention efforts right now. From the beginning, the goal should never have been to keep hospitals empty of covid patients, but rather as full as possible while still being able to care for everyone.

      The second option is an effective vaccine that can be widely deployed. In this case, sure, masks and such buy time and may have some potential of saving a small number of lives that would otherwise be lost, by keeping as few people as possible from getting it until the vaccine is available. However, for this to be a valid strategy, there HAS to be something that we are buying time FOR. That is, there has to be a plan, or at least a likelihood, of having a vaccine ready within some reasonable time frame. Otherwise, we’re just delaying the inevitable. If the maskers would at least say “hey, give us 60 days, we think we can have something ready, if not, then the masks are gone either way,” that could be a reasonable conversation. But that’s not what they say. Many of them just say masks and everything else are necessary until a vaccine is developed, no matter how many years that takes.

      The one thing that won’t happen is that the virus will just go away by being “starved.” That may work on much less contagious viruses, but if this one is truly as contagious as it appears and can in fact be transmitted asymptomatically, then that will simply never happen. As long as it exists anywhere in the world, it will come roaring back sooner or later, no matter how well a country has it “under control.” The only exception may be in isolated areas and then only with almost unimaginably draconian measures. Look at New Zealand- they are held up by the “stop the virus” crowd as the ultimate example of effective control. And indeed, they have appeared to more or less stamp it out in their small, island nation. However, if they want to stay that way, they are forced to essentially lock themselves in their basement as a nation. No one can come in without EXTREME quarantine measure, and anyone who is even suspected of maybe having the virus is essentially imprisoned until they can prove they don’t. Look at the stories of people being locked up in hotels, 60 year olds climbing out of windows with bedsheets in the middle of the night to escape- THAT is the ONLY way to come close to keeping the virus at bay without immunity via widespread infection or vaccination. But New Zealanders I’ve seen defending their methods have seemed aghast that anyone would even complain about something like that since they get an all-expenses paid vacation in a hotel. A disturbing number of progressives in this country would agree with that (see the “how can you complain about getting to stay home and watch Netflix??” during the lockdowns), which is truly terrifying.

    4. Exactly the case. The worst possible mistake we can make at this point is to drag our curve into flu season. Even if you think people will get sick when we let them outside, there will never be a better time for it to happen than right now, but our window is closing.

    5. Exactly Zeb. I’m figuring that they will lift the restrictions about the second week in October, hoping for a spike to interfere with the election.

  8. Bad news if you reside in NY.
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    Whoa, whoa, whoa — Don’t go tryin’ to apply a bunch of common sense here! We’re in the middle of a damn useful crisis, and we won’t be havin’ people just willy-nilly suggesting reasonable solutions. Now sit down!
    #FactsNotFear #ReturnToNormal

    Real Developments
    70-80% of Covid cases are transmitted inside homes.

    Locking everyone inside their homes is a terrible idea.
    10:14 PM · Jul 19, 2020
    See the latest COVID-19 information on Twitter

    Excuse me while I go out in the sunshine and get some exercise.

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    2. That makes sense if you have lots of full households. Every bug my daughters encounter at school and daycare run through the house whether or not we all show symptoms. That’s a spread of 3 extra people from 1 point of initial contact. Staying locked in will just mean it spreads through families and the moment one of them has to venture out for supplies (or work) another household will become infected. I’ve been really curious to hear where most people are catching it as they venture out. Shouldn’t be too difficult to get a general idea.
      Ultimately, policy makers and the public at large need to pull off the bandaid; the wound is festering.

    3. Put giant masks on everyone’s front door. Problem solved.

    4. Back in March NYC had a conference where 50% or 66% of new covid hospital patients had been staying home the whole time. Yet they still think they “beat” the virus.

  9. And expect infection rates to shoot up alongside it, justifying more lockdowns.

    Peter Hitchens recently wrote an investigative piece and found that right after 7 of 8 new testing stations came online, England showed a massive jump in positive cases which caused everyone to freak out.

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  11. However the Covid-19 outbreak began with a few people and the more cases found the better.

  12. > This pooling speeds up testing and conserves scarce testing chemicals and swabs.

    Not swabs, silly

  13. Scott Adams came up with that pooling idea months ago. Impressive for a non-technical guy. (I’m not saying he was the only one.)

    Nice to see that it works, and was even allowed by the FDA.

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  15. Having in home tests will not give Ron the kinda data he thinks. Unless the specificity is really, really good. Test 100 million people who don’t have symptoms, you’ll have a mostly negative population. If the specificity is 98%, then you will get ~2 million false positives.

    Of course, maybe that is exactly why Ron likes this idea.

    1. Data is only making things worse right now because everyone rushes to interpret it in the scariest way possible. The only value for data at this point is to have it so maybe some day people will actually do some proper science to see what happened here. But the data needs to be high quality for that. We’ve been beyond the point where controlling spread is an affective measure for months now. Testing won’t help control it because we have already failed to control or contain it. It’s too late.

      1. Oh we do have some control over the spread, else everybody would look like NYC.

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