The US races to supply more at-home rapid Covid tests
By Rob Picheta, CNN
(CNN) -- The United States is pushing to end a scarcity of rapid, at-home Covid-19 tests, with new investments from the Biden administration intended to bring more of the devices into American households.
The National Institutes of Health's $70 million pledge, announced last week, promises to get more tests onto the market by identifying and encouraging new manufacturers and easing the obstacles in getting the tests approved. It follows a $1 billion push unveiled by the White House last month, and Biden has committed to procuring an extra 180 million rapid testing devices over the next year.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month approved tests by US company Flowflex, saying the decision "should significantly increase the availability" of instant tests.
But the moves mark something of an 11th hour scramble for instant, or antigen, tests -- and the US is lagging dramatically behind many countries, where rapid coronavirus tests have been cheap and plentiful for months.
In the UK, for instance, at-home testing has become part of a weekly routine for millions; a pack of several tests can be ordered for free online once a day, offering results in as little as 15 minutes and allowing Brits to check their Covid-19 status before heading to work, school, social events or large gatherings.
Other countries have embraced the technology too. Since March, every German citizen has been entitled to one free antigen test a week. Cheap rapid tests are offered to anyone in Italian pharmacies. In France, they cost only around 6 euros ($7) and are readily available to buy. And in Spain, the tests have been available for purchase since July at around the same price. Even despite those affordable rates, Madrid pharmacies say supply is outpacing demand, likely due in part to the country's high vaccination rates.
Yet more nations are just now starting to roll out the option; on Monday, rapid at-home tests finally hit the shelves of Australia's pharmacies and supermarkets, after being approved for use in the country.
It's been a different story in the United States though, where those wanting the peace of mind offered by a home test kit are usually met with empty pharmacy shelves or high prices.
The shortfall traces back in part to the early months of the pandemic, when the US was slow to prioritize testing for Covid-19. Last month, former US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield, who led the agency under former President Donald Trump, admitted the US "was always behind" on testing through much of 2020.
The government could have done more during that period to stimulate the private sector in developing testing, and he was "disappointed" it did not do so, Redfield told SiriusXM's Doctor Radio.
But there has also been hesitancy over just how effective rapid tests are.
A vast, international review of studies published in March found that few antigen tests met the World Health Organization's minimum acceptable performance standards. And in October, Covid-19 home test-maker Ellume announced a voluntary recall of some of its rapid antigen tests in the US, due to an increased chance of false positives.
A study in March by University College London found accuracy rates of around 80% in antigen tests used in the UK -- higher than the international review, but below the levels provided by a PCR test.
Nonetheless, the US is hoping to join the band of nations where at-home testing is routine. If availability is ramped up, Americans could soon have another tool at their disposal when it comes to Covid-19.
YOU ASKED, WE ANSWERED
Q: What happens if I test positive while on vacation?
A: The holiday season is quickly approaching, and relaxed rules on domestic and international travel mean that many people will be planning trips in the coming weeks.
But the threat of Covid-19 has not gone away. Taking a test is still a good idea if you're spending time with vulnerable relatives, and if you're flying internationally, it's possible that you'll need to test negative to enter or leave your destination.
That can lead to a headache when holidaymakers get a positive result while on vacation -- a predicament many have already found themselves in.
You'll likely have to arrange plans to isolate, but rules vary from country to country so it's important to check before you travel. For instance, visitors to Italy are required to pay their own quarantine fees up-front if they test positive after they arrive.
"Travel insurance with Covid-19 quarantine coverage is designed to help cover the lodging and accommodation expenses you might incur should you test positive for Covid on vacation," Narendra Khatri, president and CEO of Insubuy, which provides international travel medical insurance from various US-based companies, told CNN.
"The benefit amount depends entirely on the policy you choose. Most plans provide a minimum of $2,000 in quarantine, lodging, and accommodation expenses, and trip interruption up to 100% of the trip's cost."
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China, the country where Covid-19 was first detected nearly two years ago, remains determined to eliminate the virus inside its borders, with officials there showing no signs of backing down, Ben Westcott writes.
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