Can at-home rapid tests detect Omicron variant? Here’s what experts say

By Amirtha P S, Desk Reporter
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At-home rapid tests have proven to be a powerful weapon in the country’s battle against the coronavirus and its latest variants, but the surge of the Omicron variant has raised concerns in the consumers regarding its efficacy.

Health experts say rapid tests remain a useful tool as the world braces for the latest surge in cases. The tests sacrifice some accuracy for speedy results, but they can be an aid for making decisions and knowing when to get additional treatment.

The US health officials say that early data suggests at-home rapid tests may be less sensitive in giving accurate results when it comes to the Omicron variant. However, government recommendations for using at-home tests haven’t changed. People should continue to use them when a quick result is important.

“The bottom line is the tests still detect COVID-19 whether it is delta or alpha or omicron,” says Dr. Emily Volk, president of the College of American Pathologists.

Government scientists have been checking to make sure the rapid tests still work as each new variant comes along. And this week, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said preliminary research indicates they detect Omicron but may have reduced sensitivity. The agency noted it’s still studying how the tests perform with the variant, which was first detected in late November.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, said the FDA wanted to be totally transparent by noting the sensitivity might come down a bit, but that the tests remain important.

There are many good uses for at-home tests, Dr. Volk says, combined with vaccination, at-home rapid tests can make people more comfortable about gathering with family and friends.

If you’ve been exposed to a person who tested positive but you don’t have symptoms, a rapid test five days later can give a good indication of whether you caught the virus. But consider the context when looking at results. If you feel sick after going out to a nightclub in an area with high infection rates, for example, you should look at a negative result from an at-home test with a little more skepticism, and follow it up with a PCR test, Dr. Volk noted.

The PCR tests are the most accurate tests available, which detect tiny snippets of the virus’s genetic material. These tests are carried out in laboratories and are typically more sensitive, which means PCR tests are less likely to result in a false negative.

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