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What’s the difference between the PCR and the Rapid Test Kits?

As the government ramps up COVID-19 testing, two types of test kits are being used. But what exactly is the difference between these two?

Since the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) has emphasized the importance of testing and how crucial widespread testing is in order to fight and survive the pandemic. 

“You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is,” said the WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Find, isolate, test, and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission. Every case we find and treat limits the expansion of the disease.”

Experts have long argued that to truly end the crisis and allow the economy to recover, testing has to happen on an enormous scale. Large-scale testing will identify and isolate the cases thus will help protect health workers, and measure the progression of the disease.

Also Read: Marikina, Valenzuela LGUs ramp up COVID-19 testing facilities

In the Philippines, the hashtag #MassTestingNow has been trending in social media for days now. Several cities and businesses in the private sector have been mass testing people since the national government downgraded quarantine restrictions. Two types of tests are being used: the real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test kits and the rapid test kits.

But what’s the difference between the two?

PCR Test Kits

covid19-testing-kits
Photo from Rapid Microbiology

The PCR test kits use swabs from your nose and throat for samples and what health authorities consider the “gold standard” of COVID-19 testing. The Philippines received the PCR test kits from the WHO when the pandemic started.

Such kits can only be used in accredited laboratories with PCR machines and highly skilled professionals. The PCR labs look for traces of the virus in body fluids or samples gathered from the swabs. The results would take about 24-72 hours.

covid19-testing-kits
The SARS CoV-2 detection kit was developed by a group of 15 scientists from the Philippine Genome Center and the University of the Philippines Manila’s National Institutes of Health. (Photo by Jilson Tiu / CNN Philippines)

In the Philippines, a team of scientists from the University of the Philippines has developed the country’s first locally-made PCR test kit that can generate results at a much shorter time.

Also Read: Can the PH be looking at a third wave (and worst case) of COVID-19?

Dr. Raul Destura, the man behind the said kit, explains that each kit has three vials. The first is a reagent (a substance or compound added to cause a chemical reaction) used to extract the genetic material from the sample. The other is a chemical that makes the virus vivid for detection. The third vial is molecular-grade water to ensure that the results are accurate. The actual test will take about two hours but results are released in 24 to 28 hours since samples are tested by batches.

Rapid Test Kits

covid19-testing-kits
Photo from (left) BioMedomics, Inc. and (right) Taiwan News

The rapid test kits, on the other hand, can generate results within just minutes. However, these kits are incapable of detecting the COVID-19 virus. Instead, it measures a patient’s antibodies through a blood sample acquired from the patient.

Though the rapid test kits can immediately produce results, the Department of Health (DOH) reminds everyone to use it sparingly as the kits are prone to “false negatives.” Getting false-negative results will endanger the community as the carrier will continue to interact with people.

Approved rapid test kits, according to the DOH, should be used with doctor supervision and are required to have the following label: “This product is strictly for medical professional use only and not intended for personal use. The administration of the test and interpretation of results should be done by a trained health professional. Confirmatory testing is required.”

Also Read: Marikina tricycle drivers undergo COVID-19 testing to ensure transport safety

Rapid test kits should only be used in cases when there is a need for immediate testing of a patient with severe symptoms or in communities where there is a high number of COVID-19 infections.

For more information on local testing, click here.

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