We Can Test for COVID at Home. Why Not Flu, Too?
A new kind of at-home test is coming: One that can test for more than one virus at a time.
Late last year, my partner woke up with a sore throat and a runny nose. She felt more tired than usual. So she took an at-home COVID test. She tested negative and reported her result on MakeMyTestCount.org. Forty-eight hours later, she took another test. Again, negative. She even took a third test a few days later — still negative, even though her symptoms were getting worse.
Eventually, we went to the local retail clinic, and sure enough, she finally tested positive — for flu. My partner was so frustrated. Why wasn’t there an at-home rapid test that could have told her whether she had COVID or flu? At the time, that kind of test didn’t exist. But that’s starting to change.
Multiplex tests make testing more efficient.
When you go to a doctor’s office, a community health center, or anywhere that sends samples to a lab, you can get tested for a lot of viruses at once. One way labs can do that is to use a multiplex test: A single test that can be used to diagnose more than one disease at one time. For my partner, a lab could have used a multiplex test that looked for COVID, influenza A or B, and/or Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).
In May 2022, multiplex tests arrived in the home — sort of. That month, the FDA authorized an over-the-counter test that could detect COVID, flu, and RSV. No prescription is needed: you swab yourself at home, and you get a very accurate PCR test that tells you which virus(s) you have. Great!
A few challenges, though: You still had to mail your sample to a lab to get your result, which could take a couple of days. In addition, if your insurance didn’t cover it, the tests could run nearly $200 or more out of pocket. That’s expensive to find out whether you have the flu or COVID!
At-home multiplex testing is now authorized — but there’s a catch.
In February 2023, the FDA authorized the first over-the-counter at-home rapid multiplex test that is able to detect COVID, influenza A, and influenza B. The test works just like many rapid tests that we’re familiar with — you swab your nose, place the sample in a vial, and then put the vial in a testing device, with results ready within 30 minutes. The test uses a molecular process similar to a PCR test to find out which virus might be present.
Unfortunately, as of this writing in March 2023, you can’t buy the test in the US. The company that makes it filed for bankruptcy, and it’s unclear when or how these tests might be sold to consumers.
More multiplex tests are on the way.
Even though that test hasn’t made it to your pharmacy yet, it’s still a sign of the future. As Dr. Michael Mina, the Chief Science Officer of eMed, recently pointed out, “People don’t want to swab their noses three different times and spend $300 to test for COVID, flu and RSV. So, bundling them together, it just creates a system where people can get a lot of information about themselves, in a shorter amount of time.”
More at-home multiplex tests will likely be authorized in the coming months. So next time you feel sick with flu-like symptoms, you may be able to find out whether you have COVID, flu, or another virus in the comfort of your own home. That may save you a trip to the doctor, and lead you to the right treatment faster — and get you feeling better sooner.