Run on rapid at-home COVID tests has companies rushing to meet demand

A person jogs by a COVID-19 testing site in Philadelphia, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A person jogs by a COVID-19 testing site in Philadelphia, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Many individuals, employers, and organizations are using rapid at-home COVID-19 tests as a relatively cheap and simple tool to monitor for coronavirus infections. Demand for these tests has been high, and shoppers find either empty shelves in drugstores or get “out of stock” messages online.

One manufacturer, OraSure Technologies in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, brought its test, InteliSwab, to market this summer, and it’s been in high demand ever since. The company’s CEO, Stephen Tang, said these tests will play an important role in managing life during a pandemic.

“What rapid and frequent testing will do is permit us to exist without quarantining. So that allows businesses and schools not only to begin opening, but to stay open,” said Tang, former president and CEO of the University City Science Center. “Fast and frequent testing will allow us to get through this pandemic without the threat of quarantining on a massive scale.”

School districts across Pennsylvania are using rapid tests to monitor both staff and students frequently. They have partnered with local health and education leaders and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to create Project Assisting Childhood Education through Increased Testing, or ACE-IT.

The organization trains school nurses and staff to run, read, and report rapid tests, and it’s scaling up those efforts, said Magrielle Eisen, managing lead of Project ACE-IT.

“On Jan. 5, when the pilot program started, we were able to deploy a couple hundred of tests a week. Then it became a few thousand tests a week. Now, we are able to deploy 40,000 tests a week. So far this year, we have had 535,000,” Eisen said.

OraSure’s Tang said the delta variant and the subsequent surge of COVID-19 cases has only amplified the need for tests.

“People are discovering how important it is to have rapid antigen tests, and that’s caused a surge in demand, which is not … able to be fulfilled by any or all of the manufacturers of rapid antigen tests today.”

His company plans to increase production to create 240 million tests per year by 2024.

“That may sound like a lot of tests, but considering there are 300 million people in the country, that’s less than one test per person per year,” Tang said. “So that supply is only going to be part of what’s going to be needed going forward. The demand situation will lead to continuing shortages, but that will get better as we and other companies put capacity on the marketplace very soon.”

As other testing options have been harder to come by, even some who were originally worried about the reliability of at-home tests are now turning to them.

Theatre Philadelphia, for example, requires audiences to be vaccinated or show a negative COVID test six hours prior to an event. So far, it has not allowed at-home COVID tests.

“It definitely takes intricate planning and resources to be able to get a test for within the time frame of seeing a show, depending on when a person purchases their tickets, so it impacts the ability for patrons to purchase tickets close to the performance date if they are not vaccinated,” said LaNeshe Miller-White, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia.

As other testing has become harder to come by, and more expensive than even a month ago, Theatre Philadelphia is in discussions about its stance on at-home tests and how to move forward.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal