I-TEAM: We put the at-home COVID-19 tests to the test

Published: Aug. 10, 2020 at 6:20 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - An all-new I-Team investigation is putting at-home coronavirus tests to the test.

So far, the FDA has given emergency authorization to eight different companies for tests you take yourself, then stick in the mail.

You could call it taking one for the I-Team.

Only, it wasn’t just one; it was actually four.

Three of them were nose swabs, and one was a tube of saliva. If you’re going to click on the video, it’s probably a good idea to include this disclaimer: you’re going to see a lot of this nosey reporter’s...nose.

Dr. Ravindra Kolhe, an expert at AU Health, says that's actually a pretty good idea.

"We really want to get tested as many people as possible and as quickly as possible," Kolhe said.

More from him in just a minute, but let’s start with the four tests we tested: Pixel by LabCorp, the COVID-19 test home collection kit by EverlyWell, Picture by Fulgent Genetics, and Vault’s COVID-19 test kit.

It’s important to note each one of the tests we sampled has FDA Emergency Use Authorization. Sure, the companies all point that out on their websites and/or packaging, but we wanted to make sure.

We independently verified that by pulling each of these authorization letters from the FDA and all of them check out.

Dr. Kohle says there’s still one important caveat. “There’s not a single test which is FDA approved for COVID-19,” Dr. Kolhe said, including the one he says Augusta University uses at its lab. He’s the director of the Georgia Esoteric and Molecular Laboratory and Vice Chair for Translational Research in the Medical College of Georgia Department of Pathology.

“It will take six to eight months to do the study,” Dr. Kolhe said.

That’s just part of the long process for actual FDA approval, so in the middle of a pandemic when time isn’t on our side, these letters bypass government red tape in exchange for a temporary green light.

Speaking of green, let’s talk cost. We’ll start with the freebie; Pixel by LabCorp requires “no upfront costs.” They bill your insurance company and if you don’t have insurance they say, “We’ll handle that, too, through public funding.”

I didn't pay anything for my kit.

The one from EverlyWell cost me $109. Picture by Genetic was $119. Vault was the most expensive at $150, but Vault has a couple of things the others don’t. First, it’s the only saliva test out of the four, and second, someone virtually walks you through the test on a Zoom call.

The instructions are very specific about how much they need, how to tighten the cap, and how to get enough of the blue liquid in your sample.

The representative also walks you through how to pack the tube and sanitize the packaging. All in all, it took about 10 minutes with no significant wait time on someone to jump on the Zoom call.

I was on my own for all three of the other tests...sort of. I-Team photographer Irisa Wheeler was worried I didn’t quite get the EverlyWell swab as far back as I could have.

"It's like you go past the nose hole thing. And you go all the way back, practically hitting your brain," Wheeler said.

She does have a point. When you look at the diagram, so I tried a little harder.

"There's a little blood on it. I did ok. I did ok," I said.

After the story aired, EveryWell contacted me, concerned I pushed the swab a little too far.

“Based on the segment, it seems as if Meredith may have administered the swab too deeply in her nose,” wrote Christina Song, Director of Communications for EverlyWell. “It’s only supposed to be inserted 2-4 cm into the front part of the nostril. It shouldn’t feel as if it’s hitting your brain. We wanted to relay this information so that it’s communicated properly to your viewers -- the last thing we want is a lot of viewers buying an Everlywell test kit and mistakenly inserting a swab much too deeply, which could put them at the risk of injury or an uncomfortable experience.”

Both the Pixel, which is the free one, and the one from Picture by Genetics specify to be a little more conservative with distance.

“The foam swab does not need to be inserted far,” the instructions read. “Just until it’s no longer visible.”

I can tell you was a lot more comfortable, but it did have me wonder if these as effective?

“That area of the nose doesn’t harbor that much virus particles, so you’re not going to get that robust outcome from these tests,” Dr. Kolhe said.

However, Dr. Kolhe says that doesn’t mean they won’t work. He says it just doesn’t work as well if someone is asymptomatic. If someone has symptoms, he believes they’re probably compatible to another test we’ve all likely had at one time or another: the flu test.

“The flu test, which we do in the doctor’s office, is not the best test, but we do it on each and every individual so we can quickly isolate them,” Dr. Kolhe said.

The same goes for COVID. However, a doctor or nurse usually administers that test. I administered my own. I am not a trained, medical professional. Dr. Kolhe recognizes that can lead to operator error and perhaps, inaccurate results. That’s why he said he liked to see the Vault test incorporated a virtual appointment.

“The Zoom-based testing is probably, I would say, the ideal at-home testing because somebody is watching you in real-time, versus you’re doing something on your own, and you really don’t know where we’re getting adequate sample or not,” Dr. Kolhe said.

That leads us to my fifth COVID test: the drive-thru one at AU. That way, I would have a way to compare all my results to something a little more “official.”

So, did all the different tests produce all the same results?

That answer is coming up Thursday on News 12 at 6 o’clock.

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