(Pexels)

Austin Public Health is considering offering rapid antigen tests that detect active COVID-19 infections and provide results in around 15 minutes.


Like the genetic—or polymerase chain reaction—tests currently conducted by APH, antigen tests detect the presence of an active infection from a viral sample, such as saliva or tissue swabbed from the nostrils.

Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott made the announcement on Tuesday.

While antigen tests are marginally less sensitive than genetic tests, they are cheaper to produce, less invasive and provide much faster results—in minutes instead of days.

Some local entities, including Remedy and Texas MedClinic, already offer these tests, and the federal government announced last month that it would distribute rapid testing equipment to nursing homes around the country.

Genetic tests, on the other hand, must be sent to a lab for processing. Recent surges have led to increased demand—and delayed results. Slow turnaround times stymie efforts to contain active COVID-19 cases; by the time a patient learns of a positive result, they may have already recovered—and missed their chance to prevent infecting others.

Antigen testing could help fix this bottleneck.

"It's not quite as accurate as the regular [genetic] testing that we send off to labs, but it's probably good enough," Dr. Escott told county commissioners Tuesday. "So we can get a whole lot better control over this for future outbreaks than sending off tests that are going to take three or four or 10 days."

A case study

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued its first emergency use authorization for a rapid antigen test to the California-based Quidel Corporation on May 9.

Less than two weeks later, Texas MedClinic announced it would offer the Quidel test at 19 locations across Central Texas, including two in Austin.

The practice has worked with Quidel for nearly a decade and already used its equipment for rapid flu and strep tests, which meant it only needed FDA approval and test strips to get started.

Demand was immediate.

"Patients really like them," Chief Operating Officer Dr. David Gude told Austonia, adding that the long wait times associated with genetic tests were discouraging.

As of Monday, Texas MedClinic has conducted around 62,000 antigen tests, or around 60 to 75 a day at each of its locations.

"We're now able to do really more than double the amount of tests using the rapid antigen than we were able to do with the [genetic test]," Dr. Gude said.

At their peak in mid-June, Texas Med Clinic was conducting around 2,000 antigen tests a day. But the pace was unsustainable. While the clinics close at 11 p.m., staff would often stay until as late as 3 a.m. processing results. Hiring additional staff has been a challenge given the local competition.

Dr. Gude commended APH for considering antigen testing. Even though Texas MedClinic has seen a slight reduction in demand as the surge weakens, he thinks the rapid tests will prove useful in the weeks and months ahead, especially as college students return to campus and people gather over Labor Day weekend.

"I anticipate that it's going to be up and down until there's an effective vaccine, and I'm afraid that's going to be awhile."

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