Historians have already drawn a big, vertical marker through the planet’s timeline. To the left pre-pandemic time, to the right is everything that comes next. There are going to be practices we never return to. And there will be new things, born out of the crisis, that become part of everyday life. And one of these new things will be regular lateral flow testing.
What's the difference between PCR and Lateral flow testing?
In Covid-19 detection, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are carried out in a lab – and look for the virus RNA in collected samples. It can take a couple of days to get PCR results – and they’re more expensive than alternatives.
On the other hand, antigen lateral flow testing detects viral proteins, or antigens, in a portable, relatively inexpensive device, similar to a pregnancy testing stick. Results can be seen in under 30 minutes, at the point of care.
In the past 12 months, we’ve all become used to the idea of testing. If we experience symptoms, we get a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. If we don’t have symptoms and we want to get on with life and work, many of us will need to keep testing, using lateral flow technology.
Teaching staff across the UK, for example, will have to take twice-weekly rapid flow tests, using home test kits. And the USA’s Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) approved an over-the-counter at-home diagnostic test, late in 2020. The use of lateral flow testing is increasing – and for societies to get maximum benefits from it, it has to go digital. The FDA knows this – and has recently mandated that any new lateral flow solution must contain a digital component.
Why lateral flow has to go digital
To get on top of a disease like Covid-19, speed and accuracy are everything. You need to know who has the disease and whether or not they have symptoms. You need to know where they are, who they’ve been in contact with… and then you need to test their contacts quickly.
Without digitisation, real-time, rapid response isn’t possible. What you can have instead are sometimes inexperienced people – like pharmacy or school workers – analysing results and entering them manually into spreadsheets. These spreadsheets are then shared… but time-delay is built into the system.
So is the potential for human error. A recent article in the BMJ highlighted how the accuracy of lateral flow tests can dip significantly if the person administering them isn’t experienced.
Digitising the whole process speeds things up and vastly reduces the potential for human error.
Eliminating human error with digitised lateral flow testing
There are two huge advantages to digitising lateral flow testing – and the first is virtually eliminating human error.
Imagine someone who’s new to carrying out tests – or who’s had a very long day testing hundreds of people.
It’s easy to see how even the most diligent person might misread a test result… or transpose a figure as they’re typing. And if they’re writing by hand, their script might not be read accurately by the person who’s compiling all the data.
Now let’s imagine a different scenario, where all results are captured and recorded by an app. The margin for error is very greatly reduced – and digital records can be double-checked if necessary.
Being able to collate and integrate data in real time
The second advantage to digitised lateral flow testing is having all data uploading seamlessly and automatically into the cloud, in real time.
When you have a system that relies on people updating spreadsheets – or even public health databases – everything takes longer. Which can mean that by the time you identify an area with higher rates of infection, the disease may already have spread further. This only worsens when data reporting procedures vary from state to state and there is lack of data harmonization.
With digitised lateral flow testing, however, the data is automatically uploaded into the cloud – and made available to scientists and public health experts in real time. So instead of waiting for data to come in from different areas of the country and to be uploaded, they’re able to see dashboards of what’s happening right now.
How does digitised lateral flow testing work?
Digitalising lateral flow testing doesn’t have to be complex. At its simplest, testers on the ground, testers use an app to take a photo of a lateral flow test result. Then they select the result from a drop-down and upload.
Apps like ours also make it possible to input additional data – including location, gender, socio-economic information, shift patterns at workplaces, and symptoms. All the data is automatically uploaded into the cloud, where it can be seen by healthcare professionals, scientists, politicians – and anyone else with a stake in managing disease.
Intuitive dashboards allow these professionals to run reports and interrogate the data. It’s like giving army generals real-time information from a battlefield. It gives them the edge because it allows them to make decisions based on what’s actually happening on the ground.
How will digital lateral flow testing evolve?
It’s already possible to use a technology called a reader to glean more detailed information than a yes/no/inconclusive result from lateral flow tests. However, readers are generally set up to provide information that’s only useful to highly-trained professionals.
However, when readers are digitised, the information they generate can be interpreted for the person who’s been tested. And all the information a reader detects can be uploaded into the cloud.
Lateral flow tests with automated digital components produce faster, richer data with more applications and insights
This means that when lateral flow testing incorporates a digitised reader, transparency can be increased – and even richer data can be made available in real time.
Advances are also being made in lateral flow tests themselves. The next generation test devices can contain tiny chips, which transmit information directly to a digital platform, via an app. This reduces the possibility of error even further – and makes understanding mass testing results even quicker.
Beyond the pandemic
Of course, lateral flow testing has applications well beyond Covid – in human and animal health, and even in food and environmental testing. Going digital will help all spheres to speed up response, clamp down on infection rates, improve quality, detect disease earlier – and save lives and livelihoods.
Want to find out more about going digital?
If you’re a lateral flow test manufacturer, reader manufacturer – or you have any other interest in going digital with lateral flow tests, let’s talk. We can help you to comply with recent FDA requirements and we can share insights and ideas to help you start out on your digital journey.
You can set up a no-obligation call today.
Check out our information for test and reader providers.