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Can a COVID-19 rapid test detect the omicron variant?

Scientists said omicron is a highly-mutated form of coronavirus, and a WCNC Charlotte viewer wanted to know if that means it can elude the rapid test many are using.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the omicron variant surges in the Carolinas, researchers continue to investigate the features of this new version of the coronavirus.

Scientists have said the variant is highly mutated, making some existing tools and treatments, like some monoclonal antibody therapy, less effective with other forms of the virus.

The revelations are leading some to ask whether the testing methods currently in use can detect this variant.

The Question

WCNC Charlotte received this viewer-submitted Verify topic:

Is it TRUE or NOT that the 15 minute COVID test all these thousands of drivers are waiting in line for hours, DOES NOT DETECT OMICRON?

Therefore anyone testing positive is positive for DELTA or earlier variant

Only the PCR test by a lab can detect Omicron and there is no guarantee they are just testing for covid and not specifically Omicron

-Mike R.

The test Mike R. referenced are the antigen tests, which can return results in minutes.

So, do rapid antigen tests fail to detect the omicron COVID-19 variant?

Sources

  • Food and Drug Administration
  • Dr. David Priest, infectious disease specialist, Novant Health

The Answer

"While it could be a little less sensitive, it still remains pretty, pretty sensitive," said Priest. "So, we don't want to dismiss rapid antigen tests."

In late December, the FDA filed an update to antigen diagnostic test considerations, noting it reviewed "early data" on antigen tests and omicron, finding while there is "reduced sensitivity," the testing method does detect the new variant.

That said, the FDA warns, in general, antigen tests are less sensitive and less likely to pick up very early infections compared to molecular tests, meaning a negative result might need to be investigated further.

Priest said, in the case of a negative result, if there are signs otherwise, treat the negative with skepticism.

"If someone has symptoms that seem to be consistent with COVID--let's say they were around people with COVID, now they have a fever and a sore throat, and they're coughing... I would test them again, wait a day, wait a couple days," Priest said. "Stay isolated. Don't say, 'Well, I have one negative test. So, I'm out of the woods.'"

Contact Vanessa Ruffes at vruffes@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

VERIFY is dedicated to helping the public distinguish between true and false information. The VERIFY team, with help from questions submitted by the audience, tracks the spread of stories or claims that need clarification or correction. Have something you want VERIFIED? Text us at 704-329-3600 or visit /verify.

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