15 December 2020
Unilabs says PCR testing remains the most reliable way to test for Covid-19 and expresses concern about the indiscriminate use of antigen tests
Geneva, 15 December 2020: Unilabs, the leading European diagnostic provider, says PCR testing remains the most reliable way to test for Covid-19 and expresses concern about the indiscriminate use of antigen tests.
“With the festivities on the horizon and justified concern around family gatherings, we will likely see an increase in the demand for Covid-19 testing, so it’s important for people to realise that antigen testing is not a magic bullet,” said Dr Christian Rebhan, Unilabs’ Chief Medical and Operations Officer. “Antigen testing is now increasingly offered commercially across Europe, and has the benefit of providing fast results. However, it misses a certain share of active infections, and that’s a problem. The last thing we want is for people to believe they are healthy, lower their guard, and go on to infect others.”
PCR testing identifies the genetic fingerprint of Covid-19 with a high degree of accuracy, even when the virus is present in low concentrations, and patients feel fine. That makes PCR testing the “gold standard” and the test type of choice for individuals who want to know if they are currently infected with the Covid-19 virus.
Antigen tests are generally less sensitive than PCR-based methods. Their clinical performance depends on the circumstances in which they are used. Because of the lower sensitivity, false negative antigen test results are possible in individuals with low viral loads. Antigen testing is most accurate when there is a high pre-test probability of SARS-CoV-2 infection – for example, in patients whose clinical picture is consistent with Covid-19, in communities with a high prevalence of infection. The primary use of antigen testing should therefore be geared towards testing of symptomatic individuals.
Antigen testing can also be considered for symptomatic and asymptomatic residents and staff in settings like nursing homes, where repeat antigen testing can be conducted and highly sensitive tests such as PCR tests are not available. Providers conducting antigen testing on asymptomatic populations need to be aware of the additional potential for false positive results with antigen tests that will require confirmation with a subsequent PCR test.
That is why antigen testing can only complement and not replace PCR testing, which remains the most reliable way to test for Covid-19.
At Unilabs, qualified healthcare professionals advise physicians, patients and other stakeholders on the most appropriate Covid-19 test for their situation and arrange for professional sample taking.
“Our facilities are open during the holiday period to provide testing and expert guidance,” said Rebhan. “Until vaccines are rolled out to populations, and the battle against the virus is won, there is simply no substitute for PCR testing – in the meantime, we urge people to reduce social contacts and to strictly follow tried and tested hygiene rules: keep your distance, wash your hands, and wear a mask.”
Note to editors:
Unilabs started large-scale testing in Q1 2020, rapidly increased sampling and testing capacity, and created innovative workflows to minimise risks for patients and staff. Since then, Unilabs has set up more than two hundred drive-throughs and walk-throughs to ensure safe Covid-19 testing, and introduced dedicated zones to allow vulnerable non-Covid patients – the elderly and immuno-suppressed – to continue important routine testing and treatment.
Current testing capacity at Unilabs exceeds 500,000 tests per week, and rising. The majority of the tests conducted are PCR tests, which can detect even low viral loads in both symptomatic and non-symptomatic patients and therefore allows for timely isolation and treatment.
Unilabs offers a wide range of Covid-19 tests, from PCR-based tests, which identify current infections, to serology tests, which detect antibodies and are mainly used to indicate past infections. Unilabs also offers antigen testing in some countries, since it allows for rapid screening of suspected Covid-19 patients. Used correctly, and taking account of its inherent limitations, antigen testing can be a useful tool in the fight against the virus. However, it is not recommended for population screening in individuals without symptoms, given the low pre-test probability and the risk of false negatives, as well as false positives.
In December 2020, the company announced an important milestone in its fight against Covid-19, surpassing five million Covid-19 tests across its seventeen countries.
Alistair Hammond, Director of Communications
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Unilabs is one of Europe’s largest diagnostics companies. It offers a complete range of laboratory, pathology and imaging services for patients all around the world. With 12,700 employees across 150 imaging centres and 250 labs in 17 countries, we perform more than four million lab tests a week – saving lives every single day.