May 28, 2022

China is allowing the public to undergo rapid testing for the COVID-19 antigen for the first time, as infections hit a two-year high in recent days. Online retailers including JD.com and Meituan are currently accepting pre-orders for home testing kits from government-approved manufacturers, including Shenzhen-based gene giant BGI. The products will also be available in pharmacies across the country.

For the past two years, China has pursued a “zero Covid” containment policy that has reduced the number of cases, but that strategy is being tested by an increasingly contagious variant of Omron. China has relied solely on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, a type of molecular/nucleic acid test, to detect cases, unlike Western countries that have used rapid antigen testing as a commercially available alternative.

PCR testing, which is widely considered more accurate than antigen testing, requires healthcare professionals to collect samples that are sent to a laboratory for results. By comparison, antigen testing can be done at home and results can be obtained in less than an hour.

On Saturday, China’s regulator approved five products for self-testing for the COVID-19 antigen, just a day after the country’s National Health Commission announced that antigen detection was being added as an alternative to public testing.

The introduction of self-test kits should not be taken as a sign that China will be softening its COVID-19 strategy in the near future. The health authority said rapid testing aims to detect COVID infections early, while nucleic acid tests remain the standard for confirming cases.

Best of all, at-home kits can take the pressure off a busy PCR testing routine. Local authorities in China usually order mass PCR testing when there are multiple cases of local transmission in a city. In densely populated areas, residents often have to queue for hours to get a Pap smear. Their PCR test results are then digitally synced to the national “health code” on their phones, without which they would be rejected by apartment complexes, restaurants, office buildings or public transportation.

It is not yet known exactly how China will regulate the use of these self-test kits; For example, how does the government ensure that residents voluntarily report a positive test at home to the municipality? At the very least, the original government guidelines state that home testing will continue to be controlled by the “relevant administrative departments.”

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