City, county of Los Angeles partner with USC on new rapid coronavirus antigen testing study

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The city and county of Los Angeles are working with the University of Southern California to roll out a coronavirus rapid antigen testing program that could help slow the spread of the virus by providing faster results, officials announced Tuesday.

“This could be the game-changer we’ve been waiting for,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said at press briefing Tuesday. “We understood early on what testing could do to get us back on track, save lives and stop the spread.”

Antigen tests look for pieces of proteins that make up the SARS-CoV-2 virus and are less sensitive than PCR tests for detecting COVID-19 infections, health officials explained at the briefing.  The rapid tests will try to identify people who are contagious before they are further along in their symptoms, officials said. The key is to provide an affordable test with quicker results that people can use in their homes or offices.

“Rapid antigen tests can cost as little as $5, deliver results within 15 minutes, can be conducted using a paper strip, and have the potential to be self-administered when paired with a smartphone app that can accurately interpret results,” officials said in a news release Tuesday.

The first phase of the project kicked off last week with the Los Angeles Fire Department and will last another two weeks, officials said. Firefighters received two types COVID-19 tests: a self test that provides results within 15 minutes, which are then confirmed with a lab-based test.

Neeraj Sood, director of the COVID Initiative at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, said the goal is to understand the effectiveness of rapid antigen tests in identifying infectious and asymptomatic individuals.

“Rapid antigen tests have a lot of promise in our path to reopen schools and businesses because they are cheaper and provide quicker results than PCR tests,” Sood said. “But, there is a lot we don’t know.”

In the second phase of the study, a rapid antigen test by Abbott Laboratories will be administered to individuals at the city and county’s testing sites and at schools to see if the tests can be a part of a strategy to reopen campuses.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County public health director, said the project has the potential to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

“Identifying strategies to protect our essential workers and get children back to school safely are among our highest priorities,” Ferrer said.

On Tuesday, L.A. County reported 1,586 new COVID-19 cases and 29 new fatalities. To date, L.A. has a total of 302,077 confirmed cases and 7,027 deaths.

Garcetti said he hopes that a rapid antigen test could be available for individuals at home or at work by early next year.

“If this is proven to be successful, obviously we’ll need millions of these to scale this up,” Garcetti said.

The project was made possible through a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation, along with assistance and donations from Cedars-Sinai, Curative, L.A. County Department of Public Health and USC School of Public Policy.

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