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Differences between the three main Covid-19 tests

Since Covid-19 emerged in November, 2019, the word has had to get used to repeated testing and the wide variety of kits available.

From PCRs to lateral flows, each test for the same thing, but in different ways, at varied speeds and at distinct accuracies.

Much of the population needs regular lateral flow tests to enter their workplace or continue their secondary education, while travellers arriving in the UK are required to take a day two PCR test.

As around one in three people who have Covid-19 do not present symptoms, methodical testing is still key to fighting the virus, despite vaccine and booster breakthroughs.

What are the different types of Covid-19 tests?

There are only three recognised Covid-19 tests in the UK:

  1. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR)

  2. Lateral flow (antigen)

  3. Antibody, sometimes known as a serology or blood test

The difference between PCR, lateral flow and antibody Covid-19 tests

How PCR tests work

Testing through a PCR is mainly, but not not exclusively, for individuals presenting symptoms or need an official Covid-19 negative result.

This is because PCR samples are sent to a laboratory for analysis, validated and logged onto a secure database for reference.

These are highly accurate and have a far lower likelihood of producing false-positives or negatives as they are done under lab conditions.

What is a Lateral flow test?

Tested in the same way as a PCR, lateral flow tests see patients swab their throat and then nose for mucus.

However, instead of sending the samples away for analysis, these kits can give you a result within minutes.

Despite their speed, the test is highly accurate and can be used to screen large numbers of people in a short space of time.

Rapid tests are currently being developed that will only use saliva samples, removing the need for invasive nasal cavity swabs.

How do Antibody covid tests work?

An antibody test analyses your blood to tell a patient if they have had Coronavirus in the past.

These tests are not widely available to the public and are only currently offered to select NHS staff and patients, care home staff and residents.

Antibody tests are not used for diagnosis, but rather to help authorities understand the prevalence of Covid-19 in different areas.

It is done by receiving the test kit in the post, pricking your fingertip using a special device called a lancet and then squeezing some blood into a vial.

The sample is then put into a Royal Mail priority postbox.

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