Roche test boss says COVID rapid test effectiveness to wane as shots increase

FILE PHOTO: A staff member holds a rapid COVID-19 antigenic test made by Swiss drugmaker Roche, at the smear center of the University Hospital Zurich (USZ), as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Zurich, Switzerland November 19, 2020. Picture taken November 19, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

ZURICH (Reuters) - Rapid COVID-19 tests that have become a key part of nations’ COVID-19 detection strategies will grow less effective as more people get vaccinated, Roche diagnostics chief Thomas Schinecker said on Tuesday.

Rapid antigen tests are reasonably accurate in detecting COVID-19 infections, especially compared to the flu, since viral loads in respiratory passageways are higher, Schinecker said on an investor call.

But that will likely change as shots are rolled out and prevent severe infections with high viral loads, he said.

This could drive future COVID-19 testing business to more-accurate molecular, or PCR, testing. Roche has rapid antigen tests, via its South Korean partner SD Biosensor Inc, as well as its own PCR tests that compete with diagnostics from rivals including Abbott Laboratories.

“If you look at flu, actually rapid antigen testing is not the preferred method because the viral load is not so high and then you actually have issues detecting, you get a lot of false negative,” Schinecker said. “As people get vaccinated (for COVID-19), rapid antigen testing will become less relevant simply because of the same reason.”

Once the pandemic subsides, the new coronavirus is still expected to cause infections for years to come. Schinecker expected the global PCR testing market for COVID-19 to be “a bit bigger” than existing annual flu testing, now in the low single-digit billions of dollars every year.