Expert frustrated at lack of rapid at-home COVID-19 tests

Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a faculty member in the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, has argued for months that paper-strip tests that produce rapid results—similar to pregnancy tests—could help bring the coronavirus pandemic to its knees. But regulators have not yet approved such tests for use in the U.S. In a December 1, 2020, Pivot podcast, Mina urged people to pressure their legislators to work on getting the tests approved.

“We should be dealing with [the pandemic] with the urgency of a war,” he told podcast co-hosts Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway. “We haven’t come to grips yet that this is a pandemic that’s tearing us apart at the seams. We’ve had a quarter of a million people die.”

Although much of the focus in fighting the pandemic has been on producing vaccines, Mina said that it will still be months before most people in the U.S. have access to them. In the meantime, at-home rapid antigen tests could help. The tests catch people when they’re most contagious—“I sometimes call them contagiousness indicators,” said Mina—and they could be made very inexpensively and sent to millions of homes across the country. If people took the tests a couple of times each week, they’d know their contagiousness status within about 15 minutes and could isolate at home to avoid spreading the virus, Mina said.

By contrast, people who take the gold-standard PCR tests often wait three to five days to get results back—likely well after their period of contagiousness has passed and after they may have unknowingly been spreading the virus in the community.

Mina said he’s discussed the rapid tests with people “at the highest levels” of government—at the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and “they haven’t budged.” He said the U.S. “has devalued public health so incredibly much in this country for so many decades…that we don’t even have a language, much less a law or authorization process, to even consider a test as a public health good,” as opposed to a medical diagnostic tool for an individual.

Mina suggested that people pressure policymakers about approving the rapid tests. “I think we need to get celebrities talking about it, and people writing to their congressmen and senators,” he said, adding, “I think people should be outraged that right now we have tools [to fight COVID-19] that everyone could have access to that we’re not allowing.”

Listen to the Pivot podcast: Antitrust trouble for Facebook and Google, Friend of Pivot on Covid vaccines, and remembering Tony Hsieh (Mina interview starts at 38:19)

Learn more

Frequent, rapid testing could turn national COVID-19 tide within weeks (Harvard Chan School release)

Stopping the spread of COVID-19 with rapid tests (Harvard Chan School news)