Rapid coronavirus test – a game changer?

New rapid coronavirus tests provide grounds for hope that it may be possible to return to normal life more quickly than expected. This has shored up the price of risk assets in recent days.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every area of our lives and some of the changes will be permanent. But the desire for normality (or at least a ‘new normal’) is immense. It is generally accepted that a vaccine is essential for normalisation and the long-term recovery of the economy, but it is unlikely that any vaccine will be available before next year. The economists at Union Investment are therefore not predicting a sustained economic recovery until mid-2021. However, new rapid coronavirus tests are providing grounds for hope that it may be possible to return to normal life more quickly than expected. This has also shored up the price of risk assets in recent days.

Brief overview of coronavirus test methods

Brief overview of coronavirus test methods
Source: Union Investment, as at 28 August 2020

Antigen tests permit mass screening

The turning point could be a new coronavirus test produced by the Abbott Laboratories healthcare group, which was granted emergency use approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on 26 August 2020. It is the third coronavirus antigen test to be licensed in the United States. Abbot’s rapid test has an important advantage over the earlier two, produced by Quidel and Becton Dickinson. Like its competitors, it delivers a result in just 15 minutes, but it only costs about US$ 5 and is thus significantly cheaper. It works in a similar way to a pregnancy test, which means that no equipment is necessary and it does not have to be processed in a lab. It can be done anywhere and the results are sent directly to an app on the patient’s smartphone in the form of a QR code. There are high hopes that the test could be a game changer, allowing a return to normality. From October, Abbott will be able to produce about 50 million tests a month. Quidel and Becton can currently only make around five million tests a month.

The current standard for diagnosing coronavirus infections is the PCR ( Polymerase Chain Reaction) test that detects the virus in the blood. Antigen tests are less accurate but are suitable for screening large sections of the population, for example in care homes or in universities, where there are not yet any signs of the virus. The lower degree of accuracy is counteracted by more frequent testing. In addition, the antigen tests are much cheaper, the results are available more quickly and there are currently no shortages of reagents or bottlenecks in production. For these reasons, they promise a significant improvement for developing countries which often cannot afford the costlier and more time-consuming PCR tests. India is already using antigen tests for mass screening.

Saliva tests mean no more uncomfortable swabbing

As well as the method used (PCR versus antigen), tests also differ according to the way in which samples are collected (nose and throat swab or saliva sample). The saliva test developed by Yale University recently received FDA approval. The advantage of saliva tests is that they avoid the unpleasant and awkward swab collection, which also poses a heightened risk of infection for medics. They are therefore easier for patients to do themselves. However, the sample then has to be sent to a lab and the tests are less reliable than the traditional PCR tests carried out using nose and throat swabs. The Yale test also only costs around US$ 5 and is suitable for mass screening.

University of Illinois has also developed a saliva test that it uses to mass-test students as well as teaching and other campus staff – more than 60,000 people in total. Because they are less accurate, the tests are carried out several times a week. Each test costs ten dollars and delivers a result within three hours. Anyone who refuses to be tested is barred from campus. In Illinois, the test is restoring normality to the classroom. The university plans to make the test and the well-proven process available to other universities.

Hopes for a degree of ‘normality’

The development and approval of the new rapid coronavirus test has sparked hopes that life may return to a more normal footing even before a vaccine is found. This would benefit people, the economy and markets. In the US, however, the CDC health protection agency has now softened its testing guidance. Until recently, it recommended tests for anyone who had been in close contact with an infected person, because even asymptomatic people can still pass the virus on. Now it says that people not showing any symptoms do not necessarily need to get tested. Rumour has it that the recommendation was changed under pressure from US President Donald Trump.


As at 28 August 2020