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Disagreement over reliability of antigen testing

Published: Jul. 21, 2020 at 4:45 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A company running antigen tests in Burlington is pushing back against the health department’s claims that the southern Vermont tests were false positives. Our Cat Viglienzoni reports.

"False positives are highly, highly unlikely," said Ryan Ferris, the CEO of Garnet Transport Medicine.

Ferris says he’s frustrated with how the Vermont Department of Health is characterizing antigen test results in southern Vermont.

"I think they were a little early on their jump to conclusions with claiming that all the tests were false positives," Ferris said.

His company didn’t run the tests there but does offer them to businesses and individuals, promising accurate COVID-19 results fast. Business is growing exponentially, he says. But he says what has gone nowhere are their attempts to work with the health department.

"They got back to us and said, 'We're not interested in pursuing these types of partnerships,'" Ferris said. "It's just irresponsible for a public health agency to not want to engage with a reliable community partner to expand their testing capabilities. It doesn't make any sense."

At Tuesday's press conference, Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said until they figure out what happened with the southern Vermont tests, they won't be recommending antigen test use.

"I certainly at this point would want to put a pause until this situation is resolved," Levine said.

Levine says Maine also had something similar happen where they got numerous false positives back from a test where they are supposed to be rare. He says the health department is investigating to figure out why.

"So there's something else going on that I'm pretty sure we will uncover," he said.

He told us he's confident the state's PCR tests were run correctly and are accurate, and maintained that he feels antigen testing may be more reliable for symptomatic patients but not asymptomatic ones.

"I do think there's a role for these antigen platforms. But we do have to really understand their pitfalls and problems clearly before we go full-steam ahead," Levine said.

Ferris says he is now considering running side-by-side PCR tests to verify their results, but stands by the antigen tests.

"We're very confident that the test works," Ferris said.

The other testing strategy that’s being considered is called test pooling. That’s where a bunch of tests are run in a batch to conserve resources. If the batch tests positive, each test is then run individually to see which one was infected.

It’s considered useful in cases where most of the tests are likely to be negative. Levine says it’s something they’re aware of but they haven’t used yet.

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