Epistemic status: I strongly believe this is the right conclusion given the available data. The best available data is not that good, and if better data comes out I reserve the right to change my opinion.
EDIT (4/27): In a development I consider deeply frustrating but probably ultimately good, the same office is now getting much more useful information from antigen tests. They aren’t tracking with same rigor so I can’t comapre results, but they are now beating the bar of “literally ever noticing covid”.
In an attempt to avoid covid without being miserable, many of my friends are hosting group events but requiring attendees to take a home covid test beforehand. Based on data from a medium-sized office, I believe testing for covid with the tests people are using, to be security theater and provide no decrease in risk. Antigen tests don’t work for covid screening. There is a more expensive home test available that provides some value, and rapid PCR may still be viable.
It’s important to distinguish between test types here: antigen tests look for viral proteins, and genetic amplification tests amplify viral RNA until it reaches detectable levels. The latter are much more sensitive. Most home tests are antigen tests, with the exception of Cue, which uses NAAT (a type of genetic amplification). An office in the bay area used aggressive testing with both Cue and antigen tests to control covid in the office and kept meticulous notes, which they were kind enough to share with me. Here are the aggregated numbers:
- The office requested daily Cue tests from workers. I don’t know how many people this ultimately included, probably low hundreds? I expect compliance was >95% but not perfect.
- The results are from January when the dominant strain was Omicron classic, but no one got strain tested.
- 39 people had at least one positive Cue test, all of which were either asymptomatic or ambiguously symptomatic (e.g. symptoms could be explained by allergies) at the time, and 27 of which had recent negative cue tests (often but not always the day before, sometimes the same day)
- Of these, 10 definitely went on to develop symptoms, 7 definitely did not, and 18 were ambiguous (and a few were missing data).
- 33 people with positives were retested with cue tests, of which 9 were positive.
- Of those 24 who tested positive and then negative, 4 tested positive on tests 3 or 4.
- Of the 20 people with a single positive test followed by multiple negative retests, 6 went on to develop symptoms.
- 0 people tested positive on antigen tests. There was not a single positive antigen test across this group. They not only didn’t catch covid as early as Cue did, they did not catch any cases at all, including at least 2 people who took the tests while experiencing definitive systems.
- Antigen tests were a mix of Binax and QuickVue.
- Early cases took multiple antigen tests over several days, later cases stopped bothering entirely.
- The “negative test while symptomatic” count is artificially low because I excluded people with ambiguous symptoms, and because later infectees didn’t bother with antigen tests.
- I suppose I can’t rule out the possibility that they had an unrelated disease with similar symptoms and a false positive on the Cue test. But it seems unlikely that that happened 10-28 times out a few hundred people without leaving other evidence.
A common defense of antigen tests is that they detect whether you’re contagious at that moment, not whether you will eventually become contagious. Given the existence of people who tested antigen-negative while Cue-positive and symptomatic, I can’t take that seriously.
Unfortunately Cue tests are very expensive. You need a dedicated reader, which is $250, and tests are $65 each (some discount if you sign up for a subscription). A reader can only run 1 test at a time and each test takes 30 minutes, so you need a lot for large gatherings even if people stagger their entrances.
My contact’s best guess is that the aggressive testing reduced but did not eliminate in-office spread, but it’s hard to quantify because any given case could have been caught outside the office, and because they were trying so many interventions at once. Multiple people tested positive, took a second test right away, and got a negative result, some of whom went on to develop symptoms; we should probably assume the same chance of someone testing negative when a second test would have come back positive, and some of those would have been true positives. So even extremely aggressive testing has gaps.
Meanwhile, have I mentioned lately how good open windows and air purifiers are for covid? And other illnesses, and pollution? And that taping a HEPA filter to a box fan is a reasonable substitute for an air purifier achievable for a very small number of dollars? Have you changed your filter recently?
PS. Before you throw your antigen tests out, note that they are more useful than Cue tests for determining if you’re over covid. Like PCR, NAAT can continue to pick up dead RNA for days, maybe weeks, after you have cleared the infection. A negative antigen test after symptoms have abated and there has been at least one positive test is still useful evidence to me.
PPS. I went through some notes and back in September I estimated that antigen testing would catch 25-70% of presymptomatic covid cases. Omicron moves faster, maybe faster enough that 25% was reasonable for delta, but 70% looks obviously too high now.
PPPS. Talked to another person at the office, their take is the Cue tests are oversensitive. I think this fits the data worse but feel obliged to pass it on since they were there and I wasn’t.
PPPPS (5/02): multiple people responded across platforms that they had gotten positive antigen tests. One or two of these was even presymptomatic. I acknowledge the existence proof but will not be updating until the data has a denominator. If you’re doing a large event like a conference I encourage you to give everyone both cue, antigen, and rapid PCR tests and record their results, and who eventually gets sick. If you’d like help designing this experiment in more detail please reach out (elizabeth-at-acesounderglass.com)