The COVID-19 pandemic has been hitting the world for just about a year now, with many regions still struggling to deal with the disease. Like New Zealand, some regions have gotten it under control and completely rid themselves of it, while some, like the United States, look nowhere near overcoming it.
Partially because of this divide and partly due to the outbreak's sheer infectiousness, COVID tests have become mandatory for many aspects of life, with travel being perhaps the most prominent. However, one of the issues with this is that there are so many COVID tests available that it can be hard to pick out reliable and safe ones. That is what we are here to do today.
We will look at some of the major COVID-19 testing methods and explain what they do, what they are used for, and judge whether or not it is safe to consider them as preparation for your next travel. We are going to look at these different types of Coronavirus Test:
- Molecular Test (PCR)
- Antigen Test (IgM)
- Antibody Test (IgG)
While PCR-Tests are checking for the infection with the virus, the antibody test checks for the virus-specific antibodies in the blood. Therefore, it is crucial to understand your situation, where you are on the timescale before, in the middle, or post-infection with COVID. There is another thing you want to remember when taking your tests; 30 minutes before the test you are not allowed to eat (also no chewing gum or similar), drink or smoke. This is not mentioned by all test centers, but probably a good practices to follow.
Little disclaimer here, we are no doctors nor are we COVID-19 health experts. This article has been created based on our own research consulting the various national health websites.
Let us have a look at the most common test, the PCR tests. These tests take the molecules from a nasal or throat swab (or even saliva in a few cases) and seek to figure out whether or not you have traces of COVID located in your genetic makeup.
How long the results take can vary massively based on location. Labs could be ready within hours, but more often take a day or two. If the labs are overwhelmed (as they have been so often in many locations), it could take a week to get back.
According to the FDA, this test is usually highly accurate and does not need to be replicated. A similar report comes from the Harvard Medical School, where the false positive rate is nearly zero and mostly due to contamination in the lab or some other error. These tests can be received at a hospital or medical office.
When should I take the PCR (Molecular) Test? This test is needed to identify the current presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 disease. As a result, this is one of the best tests you can get for traveling, as it is accurate and can be received back in a day or two. This is also the type of test required when entering countries like Dubai or the Maldives.
Antigen Tests (IgM)
Up next is the Antigen (IgM) test, which is also known as a diagnostic test and also taken via nasal or throat swab. When a virus attacks, IgM is usually the first antibody produced by the immune system. A positive test indicates that you may have been infected and that your immune system has started responding to the virus.
These tests can be taken at a hospital, doctor's office, or for some, even at home. The antigen test is looking for protein fragments (or "antigens", hence the name) from the virus to identify if you have currently got it. Depending on the test, the results for these tests can come back extremely quickly. It is usually judged to be anywhere between 15-30 minutes.
The biggest problem with antigen tests is that they tend to give out more false positives than molecular tests. While the results do come back quicker and the tests themselves are generally less expensive, the FDA recommends taking multiple of them regardless of your result. That way, you can double or even triple check your results.
When should I take the Antigen (IgM) Test? This test often is the first check if you have been in close contact with an individual suspected of or confirmed to have COVID-19; or you traveled to a place where transmission of COVID-19 is known to occur. Because these tests are so quick and cheap, it makes them quite ideal for this first analysis and a good travel companion. However, they do have less accuracy than the molecular tests can mean that you should not take the first answer at face value every time.
Antibody Tests (IgG)
Finally, there are antibody tests. These tests are also called serological tests, blood tests, or serology tests. For these tests, nasal and throat swabs are not involved, but rather a finger stick or blood draw is taken. The biggest issue with using antibody tests is that they do not tell you if you have the disease now. It can tell you if you've had it in the past, as it accurately identifies any antibodies that the body has produced in response to the virus. Most patients develop IgG antibodies within 7 to 10 days after symptoms of COVID-19 begin. IgG antibodies also remain in the blood after an infection has passed. These tests are only available at doctor's offices, hospitals, and blood testing labs, and results usually are available between 1 and 3 days.
When should I take the Antibody (IgG) Test? Antibody tests are not recommended for travel, as they do not tell you whether you have the virus at the time of travel. However, if you know or suspect that you have had the disease in the past and combine it with one of the previous tests to prove that you do not have it currently, that could be a better decision.
Testing for Travel
Where you are going dictates what sorts of testing you need to get done. Because of the PCR test's accuracy, it tends to be the most accepted form of these tests. As a quick recap, the summary of the previously described COVID-tests:
As an example, those arriving in Dubai (from an extensive list of countries) are required to present a valid negative COVID-19 PCR test certificate taken no more than 96 hours before departure. Be aware that no hand-written, SMS, or digital certificates will be accepted. You may also be required to take another test at Dubai airports upon arrival. For more requirements for tourists arriving in Dubai check this website.
Other countries like the Dominican Republic have removed all requirements for proof of a negative COVID-19 test result. However, visitors are still tested randomly upon arrival, and if they are positive, they must quarantine in a hotel until symptoms are gone.
When can you travel after having COVID?
This is probably the most challenging question. You have tested positive but isolated/quarantined yourself, and now all symptoms are gone. Does this now mean that you can travel? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still strongly recommends "no". People who had the coronavirus can still develop antibodies that neutralize the pathogens, but there are still big questions around how effective that is.
Antibodies may persist for three months. However, a recovered coronavirus patient may still get reinfected. As of now, questions around immunity still linger.
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Unfortunately, until this pandemic is under control worldwide, travel should not be undertaken, as it will only lengthen how long it will take. Even if you caught it at the beginning and feel fantastic now, it is simply safer to delay those travel plans for another, safer time. To bear in mind, we still do not know how long antibodies stay in the body after infection with the COVID-19 virus. You might still be tested positive months after the recovery of the illness.