The U.S. government has purchased 500 million, at-home rapid covid tests that will be available free starting in January upon request by accessing an online website, President Joe Biden announced Tuesday, Dec. 21 from the White House.
Americans need to be aware of the limitations of rapid covid tests as demand for the quick diagnostic devices surge during the wave of omicron variant infections, said Dr. Eric Topol, founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, in a CNBC interview on Dec. 21.
Reports show that covid-19 rapid tests, also known as antigen tests, are not reliable and can easily give false negatives and false positives, Topol said. Rapid tests are “not perfect” and they are not as accurate as PCR tests, but they can be handy in detecting infections if used frequently to establish confidence in the results.
“And if we’re going to use rapid tests, they’ve got to be as close proximal to the time of the event as possible, and that would include travel,” Topol told CNBC, adding that wearing masks and social distancing would be important to help reduce virus transmission.
The issue apparently lies in the fact that antigen tests “can only detect samples with a higher viral load” while molecular PCR tests can “detect snippets of the virus’s genetic material.”
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Scientists warned in October 2020 that if the rapid covid test kits are distributed en masse and used to screen asymptomatic people, they will deliver hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of false results.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump pushed the rapid covid tests in an effort that experts said was ineffective and poorly coordinated. Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not support using rapid antigen tests on asymptomatic people, officials in the Trump administration pushed for them anyway.
“With omicron, there’s a lot of breakthroughs,” Topol said, referring to covid infections in people who have been vaccinated against it. Experts estimate there are five times more breakthrough infections with omicron than with the delta variant.
The Omicron variant of covid-19 is raging abroad and in the U.S., and now accounts for more than 70 percent of new cases, according to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC).
In addition to deploying hundreds of millions of at-home rapid covid tests, Bien said he has mobilized 1,000 military medical personnel to help overburdened hospitals. Omicron has led to long lines at drive-through testing sites and the “sold out” signs for at-home testing kits on drug store websites.
The government also began distributing 50 million tests in December to community health centers.
Some hospitals including in New York said they have run out of supplies of monoclonal antibody treatments, particularly one from GlaxoSmithKline that has been shown to work against the omicron variant, NBC reported.
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