By Charles Cooper, MD
The main objective of the COVID-19 vaccine is to protect people from the disease and eventually eradicate its presence throughout the world. But the novelty of developing a vaccine in record time, combined with deployment delays and misinformation in the media, has shifted focus away from one of the most effective ways to safeguard the public: rapid antigen testing.
From a medical point of view, there are five primary variables that will affect long-term demand for COVID-19 rapid antigen testing: pace of vaccination (U.S. and global); reaching a 70%–80% vaccinated population nationwide; reported case rate (U.S. and global); duration of the vaccine’s effectiveness in an individual (currently unknown); and the mutation rate of COVID-19 variants.
Why antigen testing remains critical to reducing COVID-19 cases
Public and patient safety still relies heavily on the use of rapid antigen testing not only to accurately identify infectious individuals, but also to slow and control the spread of the virus while the vaccination rate increases. When COVID-19 rapid antigen testing became available, it was primarily used by hospitals and clinics to test patients and healthcare workers. And as people eagerly anticipate returning to “normal life,” like in-person schooling, travel, and working in an office building, rapid testing can help reduce the spread of the virus, protect vulnerable populations, and automate reporting to public health officials to monitor new COVID-19 cases.
Rapid antigen testing also remains critical because the vaccine takes time to reach full effectiveness in an individual. It remains unclear to public health experts whether people who have received the vaccine can still spread the virus to those who have not. And as new virus variants continue to emerge around the globe, this question will continue to remain at large.
Vaccination efforts and rapid antigen testing go together
Just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend social distancing, wearing a mask, and quarantining when necessary, rapid antigen testing is a measure that must be considered paramount while vaccines become more widely available. Being able to determine within minutes whether a person is infected with COVID-19 increases the likelihood of protecting those who would otherwise become exposed.
Misinformation has played a dangerous part in casting doubt on the need for rapid antigen testing. Some people are asking whether these tests can falsely detect the virus in vaccinated individuals. The answer is no. The “major” vaccines being used today in the U.S. will not affect the results of rapid antigen tests, and the vaccine will not trigger a positive test result. Neither scenario is scientifically plausible.
Though research has been published as recently as February 2021 suggesting that certain vaccines have the potential to slow transmission of the virus, this research is still considered preliminary, and the degree of protection remains unknown. Therefore, for the sake of personal and public safety, everyone should act as though transmission is possible regardless. Furthermore, as new strains of viruses emerge, the effectiveness and duration of protective immunity generated by the vaccines will continue to be in question.
Keeping healthcare professionals, patients, and the public safe
The need for diagnostic testing will not go away as long as COVID-19 is circulating in the population. Therefore, diagnostic testing for COVID-19 will likely remain in demand for years to come. As the COVID-19 landscape continues to evolve, the medical technology industry remains committed to generating rapid antigen testing for healthcare professionals, patients, and the public—especially amid the vaccine deployment.
Charles Cooper, MD, is vice president for medical and scientific affairs at BD, a leading global medical technology company. To learn more about how BD is providing patients with reliable testing results amid the COVID-19 pandemic, visit bdveritor.com.