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What is the difference between the rapid test and PCR test?

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Coronavirus testing has come a long way in a relatively short time when comparing initial testing models with today’s options. Scientific advances in little more than a year make getting tested for Covid much easier and, in most cases, with a higher degree of accuracy.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing remains the most accurate test to determine if a subject has Covid-19 as both detect genetic material belonging to the virus. Currently, there are two PCR test types: standard and rapid. Here, we compare these tests.

What is the difference between the rapid test and PCR test?

1. Time taken

The most significant difference between rapid and standard PCR testing is how much time it takes. Rapid PCR tests can take as little as 30 minutes or an hour or two to deliver a result, whereas standard tests take a minimum of 24 hours to return results. In many cases, due to testing backlogs, a standard PCR test can take over 48 hours to render a positive or negative result.

In-home rapid PCR testing has seen increased demand as the pandemic continues due to a combination of safety, time constraints, and convenience. In-home medical services send professional, qualified staff members to a client’s home to conduct testing as the diagnostic itself only takes a few minutes. This new testing mechanism is popular with people who need immediate results for travel, for the safety of their family, or for event attendance purposes.

2. Cost

Another significant difference between standard and rapid PCR testing is price. Rapid PCR testing costs almost twice as much as a standard test. The technology applied in rapid PCR testing is more advanced than that used in the standard testing format.

Some healthcare insurers offer beneficiaries access to free standard PCR testing but will not cover rapid testing due to its higher price tag. Therefore, people wanting to get a rapid test will need to pay for it themselves or seek insurance reimbursement.

3. Accuracy

Medical healthcare professionals and experts regard standard PCR testing as the most accurate means of determining a subject’s Covid status. A PCR test detects the presence of viral RNA (ribonucleic acid). Similar to DNA (deoxyribose nucleic acid), RNA contains a set of molecular data that define the Covid virus’s structure. A PCR test looks for this RNA and will return positive if it is detected.

PCR testing has been in use for years in identifying other viruses, such as herpes. It is well-known for its accuracy, with doctors finding it more reliable than other testing mechanisms. This belief has proved to be no exception with Covid, and PCR is the preferred way to determine a subject’s Covid status. Very few PCR tests have rendered incorrect results once an infection has set in. Since it uses similar technology, rapid PCR testing has not been shown to be less accurate than standard testing.

4. Administration

Both RT-PCR and rapid PCR tests can be administered via a sample taken by nasal swab from a subject’s sinus cavity. A qualified professional nurse or doctor inserts a cotton swab into the patient’s nasal cavity to collect a sample. Some subjects report minimal discomfort during sample collection.

RT-PCR testing can also be done via a throat swab or saliva sample, depending on the manufacturer.

Getting a PCR test is advised if subjects display Covid symptoms, such as a fever, cough, shortness of breath, and loss of taste or smell, or have been in close contact with someone who tested positive. These tests will determine if a person has the virus in their body. Experts advise a day or two of isolation before testing as the viral load may be so tiny at the beginning that a test cannot detect it. Some people who have tested too soon can receive a negative result the first time, while their second test may return positive for Covid-19.

5. The intent

Both rapid and standard PCR testing will determine if a subject is currently infected with Covid. This differs from antibody tests that can only determine if a subject’s immune system has developed antibodies to combat Covid, which will be evident late into an infection.

When someone tests positive, laboratories can subject their Covid test to further scrutiny, determining which variant they have. This is essential in ongoing research into viral mutation and how it affects treatment. A close study of test results also determines whether vaccines remain effective as Covid continues to mutate.