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WUWM’s Chuck Quirmbach reports on innovation in southeastern Wisconsin.

UW System Offers Free Rapid COVID-19 Test, But Follow-Up May Be Needed

Chuck Quirmbach
Starting Tuesday the public and university employees can get a free COVID-19 test that can provide results within 15 minutes. It’s an antigen test that tries to detect specific proteins related to the coronavirus.";

Beginning Tuesday, UW-Milwaukee and other University of Wisconsin System campuses are offering to the public and university employees a free rapid COVID-19 test. But medical experts warn the exam may need a follow-up.

UW System Interim President Tommy Thompson served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during part of the George W. Bush administration. The former Republican governor of Wisconsin has obtained from the Trump administration 250,000 COVID-19 tests called BinaxNOW, made by the giant pharmaceutical firm Abbott.  Thompson told the UW Board of Regents Nov. 5 that federal health officials wanted to try the tests for six weeks at universities in a state where the coronavirus is surging. 

"If it works here, then I think this thing will be rolled out across the country. But we're the beta case. So, we gotta make it work, and everybody is standing up and doing their part,” Thompson said.

Board of Regents President Drew Petersen says he's excited that more than tests have arrived.

"I think it could have been an overlooked statistic. We're getting 210 federally-funded employees to supplement and assist our campus testing effort. That is a remarkable cost savings and community benefit that we will derive based on this partnership,” Petersen said.

"If it works here, then I think this thing will be rolled out across the country. But we're the beta case." - Tommy Thompson

The selling point of BinaxNOW is it can provide COVID-19 results within 15 minutes. It’s an antigen test that tries to detect specific proteins related to the coronavirus.

Professor Nathan Ledeboer, with Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin, says one reason for the speed is that test results can be read by humans.

"You don't need an instrument to run the test. You simply swab your nose, do a few processing steps, and then wait 15 minutes for the results. Wait for a line to appear if you're positive, and if a line doesn't appear, you're negative,” Ledeboer said.

Ledeboer says the antigen tests can especially be helpful for people who need to be tested several times a week, due to their job, for example. When the tests are accurate, that can help limit quick spread of COVID-19. 

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
Inside the Wisconsin Room at UWM Student Union, where COVID-19 testing is taking place.

But he says the downside of the antigen tests is that they are not 95% reliable, as some people claim.

"Independent evaluation studies have demonstrated sensitivity for the rapid antigen tests, including Abbott BinaxNOW tests, to be as low as 80%. That's a 1 in 5 chance of potentially missing an infection,” Ledeboer said.

He says that's why even the UW recommends for people who aren't feeling well but receive a negative result on BinaxNOW to get a second test known as PCR to confirm the result. The same goes for people who test positive with BinaxNOW but do not have symptoms. 

Many health officials regard the PCR test as the medical gold standard, as those exams look for the genetic material of the coronavirus. Ledeboer says the PCR is more expensive.

"It's more expensive because the amount of money we as laboratories pay to get that test is more expensive. I can buy, for example, a rapid antigen test for under $15. It may cost me as much as $50 for a PCR test. And that's largely because we need additional instruments. We need highly trained staff people to work in the laboratories and run the tests. And the juice, if you will, of what's in the test — the components of the test — are just a bit more expensive,” Ledeboer explained.

Results from the PCR tests may take a few days to obtain. But Ledeboer emphasizes that under the federal CARES act, insurance is supposed to be covering the cost of PCR or antigen tests for everyone.

Ledeboer says there are many other developments occurring in COVID-19 testing, including ways to bring down the cost of the PCR exam and where the test can be done.

"I expect within the next one to two months, we're going to see those gold standard PCR-based tests that would be able to be mailed to your house. You simply swab your nose, put the swab into a little bit of liquid, let the test run and there'll be a line or a dot that indicates you're positive or you're negative,” Ledeboer said.

Now though, at the UW-Milwaukee Student Union, it's the launch of the BinaxNOW antigen test — open to community members over the age of 5 and to university employees. Students will continue with a different antigen test provided by the state. 

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