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Lateral flow tests 95% effective at detecting Covid if used when symptoms start, study finds

lateral flow tests

By Isabel Shaw
Reporter

14 Jul 2021

Rapid lateral flow tests, provided by pharmacies across the UK, are up to 95% effective if used by patients at the onset of Covid symptoms, a study has revealed.  

Previously, scientists had considered the role of lateral flow tests (LFTs) in mass testing as controversial, as many believed the tests were less sensitive and therefore less accurate at picking up Covid-19 cases compared with the laboratory tested PCR swabs. 

However, the study, which included over 2,500 people with mild to moderate flu-like symptoms, found that LFTs picked up 95% of the positive cases that the three-day PCR test did.  

The LFTs also picked up 86% of negative Covid cases.  

This comes as the Government confirmed earlier this week (12 July) that it would lift virtually all Covid restrictions on 19 July.   

LFTs have been available in community pharmacies in England as part of the Pharmacy Collect service since March. The service allows asymptomatic patients to access a box of seven free rapid coronavirus tests to use twice a week from their local pharmacy. 

Back in April, Tthe Pharmacist reported that over 90% of all community pharmacies in England were offering free rapid Covid tests. 

Pharmacies in Scotland and Wales have begun offering a similar service in June and July,  respectively.  

Results used in the study were taken by GPs in Liezen in Austria, between October 22 and November 30, 2020.  

This study, conducted by researchers at Queen Mary University of London, University of Oxford, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna, and the Medical University of Graz, Austria, was the first of its kind to compare the two tests on a large scale.  

The study included five5 different brands of test kits, three laboratories, and professional swabbing offered at 20 GP practices. 

Study author, Dr Werner Leber from Queen Mary University of London, said: ‘Previous studies have suggested lateral flow tests may be less sensitive than PCR in detecting Covid-19, particularly among asymptomatic individuals and during the early or late stage of an infection when the viral load is lowest. 

‘But we have found that in newly symptomatic patients, the two testing methods have similar levels of accuracy. 

‘Countries are considering using lateral flow tests to manage future waves of the pandemic. Our findings support this move, but ensuring tests are properly administered should be integral to any strategy.’ 

Dr Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths from the Big Data Institute and The Queen’s College at the University of Oxford added: ‘In our study, both shorter duration of symptoms and higher viral load were significantly associated with positive lateral flow tests.  

‘This highlights the necessity of testing at early infection with lateral flow tests and shows that in newly symptomatic patients, the two testing methods have similar levels of accuracy. 

‘Our study is the first study to demonstrate that point-of-care antigen testing using lateral flow tests combined with clinical assessment of symptomatic patients can rapidly and accurately detect SARS-CoV-2 infection in primary care.’ 


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