Update April 1, 2021 – the FDA announced the approval of Abbott’s BinaxNOW rapid antigen test kits for over the counter sales. Kits will be available in U.S. drug stores in the next few days for about $15 for a two pack ($7.50 each).
Update April 10, 2021 – Abbott is backing away from the “early April” delivery date and customer service now says “another month or two” for availability in stores.
Two other “Do It Yourself” antigen tests that are also approved for consumers – Ellume and Quidel’s QuickVue – are only being sold in bulk to corporations for employee testing but should be in stores soon.
Hopefully this is the first step to eliminating the exorbitant prices being charged for travel testing.
Travelers have told us of using “faked” or shared prescriptions to obtain and use home tests sold by eMed for $150 +$29 overnight shipping for a sixpack ($30 each). Prices are even higher in Costa Rica where the rapid antigen tests are currently only available through clinics and med labs for $43 to $85.
Dr. Michael Mina, a Harvard epidemiologist is quoted in an NPR interview saying that “$7 or $8 [per test] is still too much money” but as manufacturers begin to compete and more employers begin to require tests the retail price should drop even further.
CDC Approved for International Travel
Rapid antigen tests are one type of “viral” test that has been approved by the CDC for international travel. In fact Abbott BinaxNOW is the exact same self test used by thousands under the eMed brand to fly to the U.S. from Costa Rica.
It’s not clear how the results from the $7.50 over the counter tests sold in supermarkets and pharmacies will be shown to airlines for boarding.
The Ellume test uses a small bluetooth reader (included) to transmit results to a phone app. eMed used an app called NAVICA combined with a live person who watched users take the test and read the results via video chat. In this era of apps it’s easy to overlook the simplest solution of just showing the actual test card when checking in for a flight.
The Evolution of Self Tests in International Travel
It’s been a long strange trip to get to a reasonable solution for Covid testing in travel. When the CDC first announced the testing requirement some people were stuck paying as much as $250 and waiting two days for results from rtPCR tests. Now prices are below $10 and results take a few minutes.
Update March 28, 2021 – although there has been no change in the FDA emergency approval eMed has eliminated the banner stating that their test kits “are NOT APPROVED for international reentry requirements.” Travelers continue to report that this is the fastest, easiest, cheapest, most convenient way to obtain a negative test result to fly to the U.S.
Although their website still has a pop-up implying that the test could be used for international travel and you should check with your airline, they have also added a fine print banner on the order page with the above quoted text.
Despite changing the rules without warning eMed is not providing refunds (the only permissible reasons for refunds are lost or damaged in shipping) and there is a growing marketplace on facebook for tests that travelers can’t or don’t want to use.
Two Different Realities for Self Testing
Eight weeks ago when we heard about the United Airlines partnering with eMed to provide a $30 home test that could be carried by travelers and used to return to the U.S. we wondered how they were getting around the FDA requirement for a prescription but thought it was a great option if they could make it work.
Here’s what we know
- eMed currently states that their test kits “are NOT APPROVED for international reentry requirements”
- the “Chief Information & Marketing Officer” of eMed contacted us yesterday and stated “eMed is NOT currently servicing international airlines and the process your portal outlines is not consistent with test use and CDC guidelines”
- United Airlines website no longer has any mention of eMed or Abbott labs and the order form link is broken.
- the “I’m traveling internationally within 14 days” option that people were using to obtain a prescription to order the test kits without having symptoms has disappeared from the eMed order form.
- Travelers have reported that eMed has reversed policy again and they are being told that sharing is no longer allowed. All 6 tests in an order (the only ordering option is a six pack) must be used by the individual who purchases them. This makes sense because you cannot share a prescription.
As recently as this morning travelers who already have the kits reported the test results being accepted by airlines.
Under threat of legal action (that was kinda over the top…we’re happy to oblige and provide the most current and accurate information possible when it’s made available) we’ve removed all of the information about their previous arrangement with United Airlines and instructions for using the eMed tests that you may have visited this page in search of…
Fortunately, there’s an alternative. A number of Costa Rican labs and hospitals have begun offering antigen tests for as little as $40 with results in 1-8 hours.
- Can I use the eMed tests to fly to the U.S.? Officially, no. Actually, yes.
- Can I split up the sixpack for use by six different people? Officially, no. Actually, yes. Sharing prescriptions is prohibited and the required virtual “prescription” is issued to the person who orders the test kits.
- Can I order one or two tests? No. The only packaging option is a sixpack. Travelers with extras are offering them for sale on facebook both with shipping in the U.S. or for pickup in Costa Rica.
- Which airlines accept the DIY antigen test? See updated list of airlines below.
- When Can I order? The previous “14 days or less before international travel” requirement was eliminated when the approval for travel use was eliminated. You can order any time.
- What ages can use the test? The test is approved for anyone age 4 and older but anyone under 18 must be swabbed by an adult. Many travelers report using the test for children as young as 2 yrs.
- What equipment is required? You will need a smartphone running at least i-phone os 11 or Android 8 (to run the app) and a device with a web browser and video capability plus a fast internet connection (cellular data might work but wi-fi is best). You have to run both the app and the video monitoring telehealth proctor website simultaneously.
- Are there other approved “instant” antigen test? Yes other companies like Ellume make test kits using this technology and have been approved by the FDA but are not yet available for ordering by the public.
- Can I use a saliva sample instead? No. The test is only approved for use on nasal swab samples. Since saliva samples have been proven to be equally diagnostic nasal swabs will hopefully be eliminated soon.
- What about taking the liquid in the kit through TSA? The kits contain less than 1ml of liquid (about 20 drops) and can be carried in hand luggage through security checks without removing it to a ziplock bag.
The airlines are officially in charge of checking test results and deciding who flies to the U.S. and who does not. No guarantee, but reports from returning travelers indicates that if you have any test result bearing your name, a date within 3 days and the word “negative” it is accepted with no questions by every airline. – March 24, 2021
United – the only airline that ever definitively stated Home test results are accepted is now making no comment. Travelers have returning from Costa Rica on United flights confirm this.
Delta – although Delta has not posted an official announcement we have confirmed over 20 first hand accounts of using the home test results to board Delta flights departing Costa Rica.
Alaska, and American Airlines have published statements that travelers “will be able to use antigen home tests” Note the future tense; it does not say “are able.”
Several other airlines have made vague non-committal statements in customer service chats and calls but have not committed to officially accepting the results.
Spirit and Sun Country are the only airlines we’ve seen making a definitive statement that they will not accept self tests, only lab tests.