Company pitches rapid COVID-19 test results for businesses

Published: Jul. 16, 2020 at 5:24 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The COVID-19 cases in southern Vermont were first detected by antigen testing. The tests provide rapid results by looking for a specific protein but they may not be as accurate. Still, a local company is working to bring those tests to businesses. Our Cat Viglienzoni went to one of their testing sites to show you how they work.

"It does feel like your brain is getting tickled but it's not painful," said Seth Jolles of South Burlington.

This is Jolles' fourth time getting an antigen test. He and dozens of his restaurant co-workers have the option to have one done each week.

"We just want to keep ourselves getting tested so there's a comfort for the fellow employees and for the patrons down at the Dock," Jolles said.

This was organized by his boss, Russ Scully, who owns Spot on the Dock among other businesses. Scully says the testing gives them some peace of mind on the job.

"All of our staff are obviously front-line workers, so they're at risk every day," Scully said.

He volunteered to be a test case for Garnet Transport Medicine. Garnet CEO Ryan Ferris says despite concerns from some health officials that antigen testing isn't reliable enough, he says a 93.8% accuracy rate is enough to give confident results.

"So if you're positive, you're positive," Ferris said.

So we could see the process from start to finish without compromising patient privacy, I gave it a go. The nasal swab feels like the PCR test-- not comfortable, not terrible either.

Then my test went inside where it sat in a chemical compound that pulls any COVID-19 virus proteins from the swab. And after a minute or so, it went onto the slide with COVID antibodies in it to react for several more minutes.

In another 15-20 minutes, I'll get my results. Just to put it into perspective, the last time I got a test done, the PCR way, it took me a whole five days to get a phone call to receive the results on that one, and seven to receive a letter in the mail.

Once the test finished, it went into a machine and 11 seconds later my results came back: negative.

Ferris says that speed is what gives the antigen tests the edge and makes them useful in situations like routine workplace testing or for travelers eager to end their quaratines.

"I think we can do better," Ferris said. "The technology is there, the testing methodology has been vetted. It's reliable."

But at $50 a test, Scully says it isn't sustainable for most businesses. He's hoping eventually the state will consider it a valuable strategy and help out.

"This is kind-of a no-brainer," he said. "We've got the same results at about a third of the cost and then you have this huge benefit of getting the results in minutes."

However, Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine expressed concern about using antigen testing on its own without a PCR follow-up, specifically noting that despite the high specificity of the tests, false positives can occur, especially in populations where there is a very low prevalence of the virus.

Levine noted that the tests were recommended for use on symptomatic patients in areas where the virus rates were high.

We did not get any direct comment about whether they would recommend businesses invest in these kinds of screening tools.

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