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At-home rapid COVID tests in India

At-home DIY tests are a fast way to self-screen for the virus in India. Here's what to know.

As the world adjusts to COVID, we’re hitting bumps as cases surge and new variants such as Delta and Omicron emerge in India and many other countries. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) encourages vaccines and boosters, continued mask-wearing and frequent testing to curb the spread of Omicron.

To further reduce the chance of spread, the MoHFW and the the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) also recommend rapid antigen testing (RAT) as an over-the-counter, at-home way to screen yourself for the virus if you have symptoms of or have been exposed to COVID-19.

Before choosing a kit, familiarise yourself with the nuances of rapid antigen tests (RATs) and reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests.

What are the different types of at-home COVID tests?

There are two types of diagnostic tests that are currently being used in India – RATs and RT-PCR tests. While they can both determine if you have the virus, they differ from each other.

Rapid antigen tests (RATs), otherwise known as “rapid” tests, detect nucleocapsid protein from SARS-CoV-2. When done at home, results can come back in as little as 10 minutes or as long as 45 minutes. They can cost anywhere between ₹250 and ₹350 each.

RT-PCR, or reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction, or “molecular” tests can detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material (RNA) on a patient’s sample. This is usually carried out by specialised laboratories, but results typically take longer from 1 hour up to 2 days. Considered as the gold standard for COVID-19 testing, RT-PCR tests can cost upward of ₹500 or more.

How do at-home COVID tests work?

Rapid and molecular testing procedures have many similarities. Most at-home COVID tests require you to take a nasal swab, but some – Angcard COVID-19 Home test kit, for example – only require you to spit into an extraction tube to collect a saliva sample. You typically then add several drops of the collected sample into a solution for 10 to 15 minutes.

Results are often similar to home pregnancy tests that show two lines for a positive result and one for negative, though several provide results through a smartphone app.

Each test unit is designed for one-time use. Some kits contain 2 or more test trials inside. Carefully read the instructions for your kit before you begin.

How accurate are at-home COVID tests?

Preliminary studies show antigen tests accurately pinpoint COVID infections in 72% of people with symptoms on average, compared to 58% of infected people who are asymptomatic.

However, molecular tests are highly sensitive and accurate, getting error-free results between 95% and 100% of the time.

How to safely use your at-home COVID test

As with any product, carefully follow the instructions included with your at-home testing kit. Before using it, ensure that your test is not damaged in any way, and always check the expiration date.

The ICMR and MoHFW have issued an advisory for COVID-19 home testing using RATs. At-home COVID test is advised only in symptomatic individuals and immediate contacts of confirmed positive cases.

If you test negative but are experiencing COVID symptoms, you should get yourself immediately tested by RT-PCR. This is especially important to rule out negative results in positive cases with a low viral load.

If you test positive, the result is considered as true positive and you don’t have to take another test. You are advised to follow home isolation and care as per ICMR and MoHFW protocol. The advice also applies to test negative symptomatic individuals while awaiting the RT-PCR test result.

I’ve tested positive. How do I know if it’s Omicron?

It’s not possible to tell. Most tests that commercial and public health labs use can identify SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID – yet there isn’t a way to determine the particular variant without sending your sample to a lab for genetic sequencing to isolate genetic signatures unique to a specific variant.

Continue to follow the isolation and quarantine guidelines, no matter the variant you think you’ve contracted.

Are at-home rapid COVID tests approved by the ICMR?

As of 6 January 2022, the ICMR has approved 7 at-home rapid antigen tests designed for COVID screening. The approved list consists of 6 nasal swab tests and 1 saliva sample test.

All COVID-19 testing kits must be validated and approved by the ICMR in order to be legally supplied in India. If you plan to buy an at-home COVID test online, make sure you’re buying one of the ICMR-approved test kits to ensure test results are as accurate as possible.

How do I get a free COVID test?

The Government of India has made testing for COVID-19 free at government-designated laboratories all over India. Beneficiaries of the Ayushman Bharat National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS) will also get free testing and treatment at government-approved hospitals.

In the meantime, the ICMR and MoHFW have agreed to new measures in increasing COVID tests and recommended all states and union territories to set up multiple RAT booths in identified geographies and operate them on a 24/7 basis. The sole intention is to offer widespread testing and easier access to all Indians.

For all queries and support related to the COVID-19 infection, you can call the National Coronavirus Helpdesk at +91 11 23978046 or 1075 (toll free). There is also a list of coronavirus helpline contact numbers for different states and union territories.

When a COVID test is appropriate

Experts suggest the best time for screening yourself with a COVID test is when you:

  • Experience any COVID symptoms.
  • Intend to gather with high-risk or vulnerable people.
  • Plan to travel or attend an event that doesn’t allow for distancing.

Otherwise, regularly self-test to ensure against the possibility of a false negative result from a single test. False positives are more likely to come up when you use an at-home COVID antigen test and have no symptoms.

How much do at-home COVID tests cost?

Pricing varies among at-home COVID testing kits in India. Over-the-counter COVID RAT kits can cost anywhere from ₹250 to ₹350 each. It will be cheaper per unit if you buy the test kits in boxes of 5, 10 or more.

You can buy at-home COVID tests at various retail pharmacies, general drug stores as well as e-commerce platforms, like Amazon India and Flipkart. However, look out for retailers reportedly inflating their prices for at-home test kits. Call around to different locations to learn what’s in stock and how much they cost.

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