Speed of antigen vs. accuracy of PCR? This new test does both

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have created a new test for COVID-19 they say combines the speed of an over-the-counter antigen test with the accuracy of a PCR test.

The Harmony COVID-19 test detects genetic material from the virus, like PCR tests. But UW said Jan. 24 that unlike PCR, the Harmony kit gives results in about 30 minutes and can provide results for some samples in less than 20 minutes.

The test uses a nasal swab sample to detect the virus's RNA genome, and a smartphone operates and reads the results from the accompanying detector. The university said the detector can handle up to four samples at a time and is small enough to fit into the glove compartment of a standard car.

"We designed the test to be low-cost and simple enough that it could be used anywhere," said Barry Lutz, PhD, a UW associate professor of bioengineering and investigator with the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine. "We hope that the low cost will make high-performance testing more accessible locally and around the world."

Many at-home antigen kits are 80-85 percent accurate, though accuracy may drop with the omicron variant. PCR tests are generally 95 percent accurate or better but require expensive equipment and a long wait for results.

The university said the initial results reported in the paper show the Harmony kit is 97 percent accurate for nasal swabs. 

While the test is currently being developed for use in a clinical setting, the researchers say they plan to adapt it for home use in the future. 

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