Some political leaders are hailing a potential breakthrough in the fight against COVID-19: simple pinprick blood tests or nasal swabs that can determine within minutes if someone has or previously had the virus.
The tests could reveal the true extent of the outbreak and help separate the healthy from the sick. But some scientists have challenged their accuracy.
The newest one was unveiled on Friday by a U.S.-based lab, which said the portable test can tell if someone has COVID-19 in as little as five minutes and show negative results within 13 minutes.
Abbot Laboratories said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had given it emergency authorization to begin making the test available to health care providers as early as the coming week.
The test is the size of a small toaster and uses molecular technology.
Hopes are hanging on two types of quick tests: antigen tests that use a nose or throat swab to look for the virus, and antibody tests that look in the blood for evidence someone had the virus and recovered.
“The market has gone completely mad,” Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa said Thursday, lamenting the lack of face masks, personal protection equipment and rapid tests, “because everybody wants these products, and they want the good ones.”
The Spanish government on Thursday sent 9,000 rapid antigen tests that were deemed unreliable back to a manufacturer that, according to the Chinese government, had no license to sell them.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week called the rapid tests a “game changer” and said his government had ordered 3.5 million of them.
The U.K. hopes the tests will allow people who have had COVID-19 and recovered to go back to work, safe in the knowledge that they are immune, at least for now. That could ease the country’s economic lockdown and bring back health care workers who are being quarantined out of fears they may have the virus.
Many scientists have been cautious, saying it’s unclear if the rapid tests provide accurate results.
In the past few months, much of the testing has involved doctors sticking something akin to a long cotton swab deep into a patient’s nose or throat to retrieve cells that contain live virus.
Lab scientists pull genetic material from the virus and make billions of copies to get enough for computers to detect the bug.
Results sometimes take several days.
Rapid antigen tests have shorter swabs that patients can use themselves to gather specimens.
They are akin to rapid flu tests, which can produce results in less than 15 minutes. They focus on antigens — parts of the surface of viruses that trigger an infected person’s body to start producing antibodies.
Health authorities in China, the United States and other countries have offered few details on the rates of false positive and false negative results on any coronavirus tests.
Experts worry that the rapid tests may be significantly less reliable than the more time-consuming method.