New $5, 15-Minute Coronavirus Test Makes a Case for Rapid Testing

Man having a nasal swab test.

 Geber86 / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A new rapid antigen test can diagnose COVID-19 via nasal swab in about 15 minutes.
  • The results appear directly on a testing card that works similarly to a pregnancy test.
  • It’s less sensitive than the traditional molecular test, so someone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms who has a negative antigen test may still need a molecular test.

Drug manufacturer Abbott has created a new test that can detect the virus that causes COVID-19 in just 15 minutes. And it works like a pregnancy test.

On August 26, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization for the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card, a rapid antigen test approved for people to use within seven days of symptom onset. The test will cost about $5. Starting in October, Abbott says it will produce about 50 million tests monthly.

To use the test, a medical professional must first conduct a nasal swab. Then, they’ll put the sample on a test card. Within 15 minutes, one line will appear on the card if the sample tests negative for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Two lines will appear if it’s positive. 

This is the first authorized diagnostic antigen test for SARS-CoV-2 that allows results to be read directly from a testing card. Unlike a molecular test, an antigen test doesn’t require any dedicated lab personnel and special equipment. But it may not be quite as accurate. 

The test is only intended for symptomatic people. The manufacturer is testing BinaxNOW to see if it will work on asymptomatic people, an Abbott representative tells Verywell. 

Molecular vs. Antigen Tests

Molecular tests examine genetics in the virus, while antigen tests detect proteins on the surface of it. Antigen tests are generally less sensitive than molecular tests. Negative antigen tests may still need to be confirmed with a molecular test to make treatment choices, the FDA says.

Amira Roess, PhD, a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University's College of Health and Human Services, tells Verywell that molecular tests can take longer to process and be more expensive. While rapid antigen tests are a good alternative, negative results from a rapid test should be “interpreted cautiously” if someone is showing COVID-19 symptoms.

A doctor may order a molecular test after a negative rapid test result for better accuracy, she adds.

“We use a similar approach when testing for other diseases—for example, testing for strep throat follows a similar procedure,” Roess says. “If a rapid test for strep throat is positive, treatment starts immediately. If a rapid test is negative for strep throat then a culture is grown at least overnight. It is important to interpret these test results in consultation with a healthcare provider.”

A rapid test will probably never be quite as sensitive as a molecular test such as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, according to Morgan Katz, MD, an assistant professor of medicine specializing in infectious disease at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. PCR tests are the current gold standard for COVID-19 testing. 

“The reason the antigen test is not as sensitive as the PCR test is because the antigen test only targets a specific protein on the virus,” Katz tells Verywell. “The PCR test amplifies a portion of the RNA in the virus, so it is able to detect even a few copies of the virus by multiplying it.”

Amesh A. Adalja, MD
, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, thinks there’s too much emphasis on sensitivity when rapid tests are simply meant to determine if someone is infected or contagious. 

“In symptomatic individuals, this test has acceptable sensitivity,” Adalja tells Verywell.  

He agreed that a positive result on an antigen test is acceptable to make a diagnosis, so there is no need to use a more costly test. 

What This Means For You

If you are within seven days of potential COVID-19 symptom onset, you may be able to get a diagnosis in about 15 minutes using this test.

Improving the Antigen Test

Experts say there are some strategies to improve the effectiveness of antigen tests.

“One is reducing the amount of dilution of the sample required to run the test,” Katz says. “The other, which I think is a really important way to start using even these less sensitive tests, is to increase the frequency by which we obtain them. If you are able to test more often, you can potentially overcome some of the issues of missed cases.”

Katz would like to see clearer guidance on using rapid antigen tests for things like opening schools, returning to work, or screening kids with mild symptoms in outpatient clinics. 

“We need to start getting creative about how we test, because it is clear our current system is not working,” she says. “While molecular tests are more accurate, molecular tests need to be prioritized for settings where a missed case could have devastating effects—for example, nursing homes. Because we are limited in terms of lab capacity for molecular testing, and have no clear federal guidelines to prioritize who gets these tests, people are using molecular testing for things like screening people looking to go out to their vacation home in Nantucket, which can result in a backlog in test turnaround times when we need them most."

Adalja adds the BinaxNOW test is a step in the right direction for better home testing in the future. 

The BinaxNOW can be used in tandem with the NAVICA mobile app, which the company likened to a “secure digital boarding pass” that can be scanned in order to enter a public place. The app will let allow people to display a negative test result, and can be renewed each time someone gets a test. Abbott hopes the app will add additional protections for large gatherings along with mask-wearing, social distancing, cleaning, and hand-washing.

“This is an important development that paves the way for even simpler tests,” he says. “The game-changer will be when we have tests approved that can tell an asymptomatic person whether or not they are contagious. These tests would be ideally done in the home and very cheap.”

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  1. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. COVID-19 update: FDA authorizes first diagnostic test where results can be read directly from testing card. Updated August 26, 2020.

  2. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC diagnostic tests for COVID-19.