Covid Testing in Your Bathroom: A Way Out of Lockdowns?

Photo by Alex Alvarez on Unsplash

In the middle of all the Covid-Madness, it’s hard to imagine any light at the end of our tunnel.

But as a student of epidemics I can tell you, the reality is this: All Epidemics Always End. Somehow, some way — test, a treatment, maybe even a vaccine — someday we will talk about Covid in the past tense.

For me right now, the concept that gives me hope is the potential development of rapid in-home testing.

Treatments are coming but it’s slow, incremental, tiny bits of progress. Vaccines have lots of hurdles before they are our reality. But think how at-home testing could change things for all of us.

What if you could get up in the morning, spit on a piece of paper, and find out that minute whether or not you have Covid?

What if you didn’t need to put the spit into a machine or send it off for testing (as you must with current tests), but could just tell, right in the privacy of your own bathroom, like a pregnancy test, where you stood?

How cool would that be?

This is how cool it would be:

a) The test is positive. You stay home. You don’t go to school or work or lunch with Great Aunt Bertha.

b) The test is negative. You go out into your world with a good deal of confidence that you are not a danger to anyone, most particularly Great Aunt Bertha.

A test like this could change everything.

So why don’t we have this?

A huge reason we don’t have it is because the FDA has thus far required Covid tests (eg PCR tests from the nose or back of nose) be super-dooper-completely sensitive at detecting even teeny weeny pieces of Covid. (The famous false negatives are often because of timing or technique.)

But the science is showing us that teeny weeny amounts of viral material aren’t necessarily contagious.You seem to be contagious only when you have a BIG bunch of viruses.

So what we need is a test that shows when you have a BIG bunch of viruses in you — ie when you are contagious — not just when you have a little bit of non-infectious viral RNA stuck in your nose.

So maybe the test doesn’t have to be as sensitive as a clinic test. Maybe it can be orders of magnitude less sensitive. Maybe we can skip the “perfect test” part and just go straight to “good enough.

The other thing we need is for it to be fast. Right now turn-around times for tests are hideously long — some as long as quarantine (10–14 days)! A useful test must be fast, and an at-home test has to be essentially immediate.

So if we could all have a simple, spit-oriented, “good enough” test to let us know we were safe or unsafe, and it was cheap enough to do every 24–48 hours — wouldn’t that rock? No more lock-downs, no more fretting about the dangers to teachers and front-line and health care workers, and no more worrying we are riddled with Covid and going to be the death of Great Aunt Bertha.

We don’t have that test now — people are working on it, there’s a competition, there’s a grassroots movement, the NIH has thrown a little money at it, there’s an early FDA request for ideas — but we have to remember it hasn’t been definitively invented or tested or proven or mass produced or anything. But doesn’t it show fabulous promise?

Because that’s what we need to get out of this mess, and one of these days it will happen. A bunch of scientists and physicians and researchers are working their brains out on all this stuff and one of these ideas — a test, a treatment, maybe even a vaccine — is going to work.

Because, I promise you, history bears it out: All Epidemics Always End.

(Robin Schoenthaler, MD is a Boston-based cancer doctor who has been writing fact-based-no-blame-no-rumors-all-science-all-the-time essays about Covid-19 since March 2020.)



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