Clinical laboratories could play a key role in helping users collect their samples correctly, interpret results, and transfer flu test data to their health records
Clinical laboratories may have another opportunity to provide service to their clients and the physicians who treat them. With the success of at-home COVID-19 testing, consumer demand for self-tests is changing and advances in diagnostic technology now make it feasible to make more influenza (flu) tests available for consumers to buy and use at home.
At-home tests for SARS-CoV-2 can be found at pharmacies all across America. But that’s not the case with tests for influenza.
Should self-test flu kits eventually become available and common, clinical laboratories could offer the service of helping consumers understand:
that the test was conducted correctly (specimen collection and analysis),
“Home flu testing would ensure that those who do need and receive antiviral medication for influenza are the ones who need it the most,” and that “we are making our treatment decisions based on data,” infectious disease specialist Christina Yen, MD (above), University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, told STAT News. At-home flu self-tests could also bring opportunities for clinical laboratories to provide service to healthcare consumers and the physicians who treat them. (Photo copyright: UT Southwestern Medical Center.)
Pros and Cons of Consumers Doing At-home Influenza Testing
“It’s really rare, and it’s really new that people are allowed to know about what’s happening inside their body without a physician in the middle,” Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina, MD, PhD, told STAT News. The article uses the example of at-home pregnancy tests. Despite a prototype for an at-home pregnancy test being created in 1967, it took another decade before an over-the-counter pregnancy test became available to the public.
“The general thinking was, ‘How could a woman possibly know what to do if she found out she was pregnant on her own without a doctor in the room?’ That is a ridiculous concern because women have been doing that for millions of years,” Mina added.
So, why be cautious when it comes to giving patients the option of at-home flu testing?
There are some cons to at-home influenza tests. Average citizens are not clinical laboratory professionals. They might obtain too little sample for an accurate reading or read the results incorrectly. Then, there is the possibility for false-negatives or false-positives.
An at-home test user is not likely to consider the possibility of a false result, however clinicians look at the situation with more nuance. If the patient was still symptomatic or in a high-risk community, the provider could administer a more sensitive medical laboratory test to confirm the previous test results.
“In a Facebook post from mid-November with hundreds of responses, concertgoers compared symptoms and positive test results, many of those from tests taken at home. But those data weren’t added to state public health tallies of COVID’s spread,” STAT News noted.
The larger concern is that samples obtained by at-home self-test users are not submitted for genomic sequencing. This could lead to incomplete data and delay identifying new variants of the coronavirus in communities.
Another barrier to at-home flu testing is that rapid influenza diagnostic testing can be unreliable. In 2009, the rapid influenza tests could only detect the H1N1 influenza virus in a mere 11% of samples, STAT News reported. Because of this, the FDA now requires manufacturers to test their rapid tests against eight different strains that change every year depending upon which strains are prevalent. This could present a problem if individuals use leftover tests from the previous flu season.
Do Pros of At-home Testing Outweigh the Cons?
At-home testing is convenient and makes testing more accessible to patients who may not be able to get to a clinic. Being able to test at home also encourages individuals to take precautions necessary to stop the spread of whichever illness they may have. Given the similarities in symptoms between influenza and COVID-19, people could benefit from having tools at home that correctly identify their illness.
At-home COVID-19 tests are here to stay, and at-home influenza tests may be on the way soon. Clinical laboratories could play an important role in educating the public on the correct handling of these tests.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 1918 influenza (aka, the Spanish Flu) pandemic took place worldwide between 1918 and 1919. It was caused by the H1N1 virus (A/H1N1), a subtype of the Influenza A virus, and infected approximately 500 million people worldwide (a third of the human population at the time). Fifty million people died. Many were children or otherwise healthy individuals, but people from all age groups perished.
The CDC calls the Spanish Flu the “deadliest pandemic of the 20th century.” Past pandemics have generally concluded after 2.5 to 3.5 years. That’s how long it takes for new viruses to mutate and become endemic diseases, Healthline reported.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been around for about that long. It stands to reason the natural end of the COVID-19 pandemic may be just around the corner. But is it? And is the Omicron variant an indicator that the COVID-19 pandemic is winding down?
“Our analysis suggests that in the US, this combination of characteristics would lead to Omicron replacing Delta as the dominant variant in the next few months and to a higher peak burden of disease than the country saw in the second half of 2021 (but likely below the peak reached in the winter of 2020-21),” the report states.
McKinsey analysts also acknowledged the possible impact of new therapeutics, COVID-19 vaccine booster doses, and public health measures on Omicron spread. “In the short term, an accelerated rollout of booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines is likely to be one of the best protections against an Omicron-fueled wave of the disease,” the analysts wrote.
Does How the Spanish Flu Came to an End Mirror the COVID-19 Pandemic?
Virologists and infectious disease experts explained that the Spanish Flu virus did what viruses still do: mutate and become less dangerous. Herd immunity also helped end the 1918 pandemic.
“The 1918 influenza virus eventually mutated to the point of not having a high number of deaths—eventually over three years or so. We may very well be witnessing this process with ongoing variants of SARS-CoV-2,” virologist Rodney Rohde, PhD, Director of the Clinical Laboratory Science Program at Texas State University, told Healthline.
“If you think about the way viruses behave, biologically, their reason for living is to replicate and spread, and there’s really no advantage for the virus to kill the host,” infectious disease specialist Keith Armitage, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases at Case Western Reserve University, told Healthline. “The hope is, that if the pandemic doesn’t go away, we will get new variants that are highly contagious but don’t produce much of a clinical illness,” he added.
In “2021’s Top 10 Lab Stories Confirm Important Trends,” Dark Daily’s sister publication, The Dark Report (TDR), posed a similar question in its number one story of 2021: “COVID-19: Will it Become Endemic and a Respiratory Virus that Shows Up Every Year like Influenza?”
“The question of whether SARS-CoV-2 is a pandemic that fades, as did SARS in 2003, or becomes endemic and a respiratory virus that shows up every season like influenza and the common cold, is of major concern to clinical lab administrators. That’s because clinical labs and pathology groups must continue to serve physicians and patients with the usual menu of routine, reference, and esoteric testing,” TDR noted.
Clinical Laboratories to Continue COVID Testing
It would be most helpful for medical laboratories and pathology groups to have some idea of when the pandemic will end. Unfortunately, such predictions would not be very useful.
“Since COVID-19 infections have a high number of asymptomatic transmitters, we may not fully understand how societal and environmental pressures—masks, distancing, remote working, etc.—on the virus will allow it to evolve,” Rohde told Healthline.
For now, clinical laboratories will need to continue to remain prepared as COVID-19 cases rise and people seek SARS-COV-2 tests, vaccinations, and treatments. COVID-19 testing is likely to be in demand throughout the coming year. The current surge in demand for COVID-19 tests is putting additional stress on the supply chain.