Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air will be the first in the 13-hospital University of Maryland Medical System to offer a pilot program of COVID-19 antigen tests, which can return results within minutes, health system officials announced Tuesday.
Speaking before the Harford County Council, Faheem Younus likened the antigen test to a pregnancy test in terms of the speed of the results.
“We are going to validate it and sort of do a study to see what is the best way we can use this test,” said Younus, Upper Chesapeake Health’s chief quality officer and infectious disease specialist.
Younus said the pilot program is “about to start,” but he did not specify when. A spokesperson for the hospital said there are still “many details to work out” and could not answer specific questions.
Unlike an antibody test, which shows if the person has already been exposed to the virus by detecting COVID-19 antibodies in their system, the antigen tests will detect active disease, Younus explained. The results of the nasal-swab antigen test would be available within minutes of testing, he said, and users could interpret the findings without the need for lab analysis.
The Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization Aug. 26 for antigen tests where results can be read directly from the testing card, according to the agency’s website.
The speed of the test results returning could come at the expense of accuracy, Younus said, but the hospital staff will be examining their reliability as part of its pilot program.
The tests can be repeated day over day, he said, which could yield more accurate results, and according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, their positive findings are usually highly accurate. The antigen tests are also cheaper than a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, the results of which could take anywhere from a day up to a week to appear.
“They’re faster, they’re cheaper, and how do you bridge that gap of accuracy, by repeating the test,” he said. “You can repeat it the next day and the day after and probably will still be better off than a PCR test in terms of cost and speed.”
PCR tests are 90% to 95% sensitive, Younus said, and detect scraps of the virus’ genetic material while antigen tests check for viral proteins.
According to the CDC, the PCR test remains the “gold standard” in terms of accuracy, but the first two antigen tests given emergency use authorization by the agency showed sensitivity rates of 84% and 97% compared to the PCR.
The antigen tests are not broadly available in Harford County, Younus said, but he suspected they would be a helpful development in the fight against the coronavirus. Multiple companies are working on developing the tests.
“My hunch is that in the next month or so they should be ubiquitous,” he said.
UCH data presented to the council also painted an encouraging picture — infections are down and patients who are afflicted with the virus have better chances of surviving worldwide. As of Aug. 30, UCH has seen 234 COVID-positive patients. Only 28 patients have succumbed to the virus at the hospital, but Younus noted that six of those patients were transferred from other university system hospitals and arrived in critical condition.
Still, Younus said, the university system’s own projections forecast the number of COVID-19 cases to rise in the winter months — coinciding with flu season. He urged people to get a flu shot to avoid being hit by the potential confluence of flu and coronavirus.
“I would warn us to be very cautious until April 2021,” Younus said. “Every year what we see in the winter months [is] the post-Christmas surge in seasonal viruses.”