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COVID-19 testing in India: What you need to know

PCR or rapid antigen? Where can I buy a test in India, what will it cost and how long will I wait? All your questions are answered here.

As most Indians would now be aware, you can test yourself for COVID-19 at home instead of going to a clinic. Rapid antigen tests offer an alternative to queuing for hours, but there are some questions that arise. How effective they are, how to use them correctly and how much they cost. Also, are they required and accepted for travelling within India or when you head overseas?

Here’s everything Indians need to know about COVID-19 rapid antigen home testing and how it compares to RT-PCR.

What is a rapid antigen test?

Rapid antigen tests (RATs) are a screening tool that helps detect COVID-19 in people without any symptoms (asymptomatic). They are quicker and easier than a standard RT-PCR test but also less effective.

The test involves conducting a saliva sample or nasal swab and placing it into a chemical solution. They provide results within around 20 minutes.

Another benefit of rapid antigen testing is that the test does not require an intrusive procedure. Unlike a clinic test, you don’t necessarily need to shove anything down your throat or up your nose.

Here’s a video demonstration of a testing kit:

Rapid antigen test vs RT-PCR test

Here are the main differences between RT-PCR tests (the type you receive at clinics) and RATs (available for home testing).

Reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR test)

Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) is one type of molecular or nucleic acid-based test (PCR test). This is the most accurate way to test for COVID-19 and is usually carried out by specialised laboratories.

  • How it works. It detects the presence of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material (RNA) in respiratory samples to determine if COVID-19 is present.
  • What it tests. It tests for a current COVID-19 infection (usually within 1 to 2 days).
  • How samples are collected. Samples are collected through a nose, throat or oral swab.
  • How long it takes. It usually takes 1 to 2 days to process the results.

Antigen-based testing or rapid antigen test (RAT)

RATs produce quick results when you test for COVID-19 at a doctor’s office, pharmacy or workplace/academic setting.

  • How it works. Samples are placed in an extraction buffer or reagent and tested for the presence of SARS-CoV-2-specific virus proteins (also called antigens).
  • What it tests. It tests for a current COVID-19 infection (usually within 15 minutes).
  • How samples are collected. Samples are collected through a nose, throat or oral swab.
  • How long it takes. It usually takes 15 minutes to an hour to process the results.

Are COVID-19 home testing kits available in India?

As part of India’s COVID-19 testing efforts, as of 6 January 2022, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has approved 7 COVID-19 home testing kits using RATs.

According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) directives, Indian states and union territories are encouraged to increase testing by widespread use of RATs in situations where RT-PCR testing poses challenges. This includes the use of self-tests/home tests for symptomatic individuals.

At the time of writing, you can purchase COVID-19 home testing kits from various retail pharmacies, general drug stores as well as e-commerce platforms, like Amazon India and Flipkart.

How much do COVID-19 home testing kits cost?

Costs can vary widely among COVID-19 home testing kit suppliers. The retail prices typically range from ₹250 to ₹350 per test kit. It will be cheaper per unit if you purchase the tests in boxes of 5, 10 or more.

How do I know if a home testing kit is legit?

All COVID-19 testing kits must be approved by the ICMR in order to be legally supplied in India. To ensure test results are as accurate as possible, make sure you’re buying one of these ICMR-approved test kits:

Product nameCompanySample collected
CoviSelf (PathoCatch) COVID-19 OTC Antigen LF deviceMylab Discovery Solutions Ltd, Pune (Maharashtra), IndiaNasal swab
PanBio COVID-19 Antigen Rapid Test DeviceAbbott Rapid Diagnostics Division, Chicago (Alere Medical Pvt Ltd, Gurugram)Nasal swab
CoviFind COVID-19 Rapid Ag Self TestMeril Diagnostics Pvt Ltd, Vapi (Gujarat), IndiaNasal swab
Angcard COVID-19 Home Test KitAngstrom Biotech Pvt LtdSaliva
CliniTest COVID-19 Antigen Self TestHealgen Scientific Limited, USA (Siemens Healthcare Pvt Ltd, Gurugram)Nasal swab
ULTRA Covi-Catch SARS-CoV-2 Home TestSD Biosensor Healthcare Pvt Ltd, Gurugram (Haryana), IndiaNasal swab
AbCheck Rapid Antigen Self Test - NasalNulife Care, Noida (Uttar Pradesh), IndiaNasal swab

Note: Information provided is accurate as of 14 January 2022.

Is home testing as effective as going to a clinic?

No. The chief benefit of rapid antigen testing is speed and simplicity. Unlike RT-PCR testing, a RAT offers a quick turnaround time (15-30 minutes), is scalable and does not need to be administered by a medical professional or sent to a lab.

On the downside, it isn’t as successful at detecting the virus and has a higher potential of providing a “false negative” in individuals with low viral load, making it less accurate compared to RT-PCR testing, which looks for the genetic material (RNA) of the virus.

What are the rules surrounding rapid antigen testing?

In an effort to ease the pressure being felt by the healthcare system due to massive testing demands, the ICMR and MoHFW have agreed to new measures around testing and issued an advisory for COVID-19 home testing using RATs. Home testing by RAT is advised only in symptomatic individuals and immediate contacts of confirmed positive cases.

All symptomatic individuals who test negative must get themselves immediately tested by RT-PCR. This is mostly important as the home testing kits are likely to miss a small number of positive cases presenting with a low viral load.

All individuals who test positive are considered as true positives and no repeat testing is required. All test positive individuals are advised to follow home isolation and care for COVID-19 protocol. The protocol also applies to test negative symptomatic individuals while awaiting the RT-PCR test result.

It’s also worth noting that RATs are not accepted for travel into India. A negative RT-PCR test is required within 72 hours of inbound travel to India. When departing India, some destination countries and airlines do require a pre-departure test result before you will be allowed to board, so make sure to do the necessary research before any trip.

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