Clinical laboratory and pathologists generally acknowledge that RT-Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) tests remain the preferred method for detecting COVID-19 disease. However, according to Popular Science, rapid at-home antigen tests that accurately identify people carrying larger loads of the virus are becoming important tools in the fight against spread of the coronavirus.
DxTerity SARS-CoV-2: This saliva-based collection kit is available on Amazon and at Walmart for $110. Specimens must be sent via FedEx on the same day as collection. Results are available within 24 to 72 hours of the sample being received by the PCR testing lab.
Abbott BinaxNOW Antigen Self-Test. Results within 15 minutes and available for $23.99 at major pharmacies. Each box includes two nasal swab tests, with the second test taken within 36 hours of the first.
Many of the newest at-home tests not only have users collect their own swab or saliva samples, but some also provide results in less than an hour, which can be sent to the user’s smartphone. Conversely, home-based collection kits that are returned to clinical laboratories for testing can take 48 hours or longer for shipping and processing.
Among the issues cited were the potential for inadequate samples and improper handling to cause inaccurate results, as well as uncertainty whether at-home antigen tests will pick up on COVID-19 variants.
At-home tests also are less likely to be covered by insurance, MedPage Today reported.
How Do the Tests’ Accuracy Compare?
The Quest Direct and LabCorp Pixel tests—both of which are sent to company labs for PCR testing—scored highest on the two main statistical measures of performance sensitivity (positive percent agreement) and specificity (negative percent agreement). According to Popular Science, each of these tests’ sensitivities and specificities are close to 100%.
According to the websites of the other tests reviewed by Popular Science:
DxTerity test, which uses a saliva sample—97.2% sensitivity and a 92.5% specificity.
BinaxNOW test—84.6% sensitivity and 98.5% specificity.
Cue COVID-19 test—98.7% sensitivity and 97.6% specificity.
Lucira Check Its test—98% accuracy.
Ellume test—95% sensitivity and 97% specificity.
Rapid Antigen Tests Accurate and Easy to Use, says Popular Science
Popular Science found the tests generally easy to use and concluded they are a beneficial—if imperfect—tool in the fight against COVID-19.
“If you’re unvaccinated and symptomatic, they’re a great way to confirm a COVID-19 infection without risking a trip out of the house,” Popular Science stated in its article. “If you’re unvaccinated and have no symptoms, and just want to know whether you can safely attend a family dinner or soccer game, an at-home test remains an imperfect way of self-screening. Remember: If the test comes back negative, there’s still the chance the result is false, and you could accidentally expose others by being within six feet of them without a mask on.”
As the popularity of at-home COVID-19 tests increases, clinical laboratories that perform RT-PCR tests may want to keep a watchful eye on the demand for at-home rapid antigen testing, especially now that some tests are available without prescription.
One medical testing company was led by a convicted felon, another was accused of delays and unreliable results
Like many states, Florida has worked hard to quickly ramp up diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness. For the most part this has been a good thing. However, local media in that state reported problems with two no-bid contracts for clinical laboratory testing, including one with a Dallas-based company whose founder pleaded guilty last year to two felonies involving insurance fraud.
In a press conference announcing the two deals, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said, “We have two contracts in place with two new labs that will increase our lab capacity by 18,000 samples per day.” He added that he expected a 24- to 48-hour turnaround.
“That’s a lot better than we’ve been getting from Quest and LabCorp,” he said. “These labs will be primarily where we send our samples that we collect in the long-term-care and assisted-living facilities and at the community-based walk-up sites.”
The announcement followed DeSantis’ March 9 emergency decree, which allowed state agencies to award contracts to companies without undergoing formal bidding processes, reported Florida Bulldog, an independent non-profit news site.
In his announcement, DeSantis did not identify the companies that had received the lab test contracts. However, Florida Bulldog reported that those companies were:
Southwest Regional PCR, a CAP-accredited lab in Lubbock, Texas, that does business as MicroGenDX Laboratory (MicroGen Diagnostics, LLC).
The Indur contract—initially valued at $11.3 million—included $10.2 million for 140,000 COVID-19 RT-qPCR test kits, plus additional payment for supplies, Florida Bulldog reported based on information from the state contract database. Later, the contract was reduced to $2.2 million solely for supplies.
The MicroGenDX contract—valued at $11 million—called for 8,000 tests per day for 14 days at a cost of $99 per test, Florida Bulldog reported. That contract was later cancelled due to concerns about reliability and processing speed.
Indur’s Legal Troubles
Indur is a self-described “health and wellness lifestyle and products company” founded in 2017 by Brandt Beal, according to Business Insider. In 2019, Beal pleaded guilty to two felonies involving insurance fraud in Texas and was given 10 years’ probation in each case, Florida Bulldog reported. He also was required to pay restitution. He pleaded guilty to a separate charge of felony theft in 2017 and was sentenced to nine years’ probation.
In an interview with Florida Bulldog, Beal claimed that “the man who pleaded guilty to those charges is actually his cousin with the same name.” However, Beal “would not provide requested contact information for his cousin,” the Florida Bulldog reported, which posted photos demonstrating that the Indur founder and the person who pleaded guilty to the felonies were the same individual.
The amended contract, valued at $2.2 million, called for Indur to deliver swabs and vials. “To date, everything that’s been ordered they’ve delivered on,” said Jared Moskowitz, Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management department.
Testing Delays Snag MicroGen Diagnostics
The state cancelled its contract with MicroGenDX on May 15, Florida Bulldog reported.
“As with any lab, we do our due diligence to ensure the company will be able to provide reliable services before sending any samples,” said Jason Mahon, Communications Director at the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “Upon further interaction with this vendor, the Division determined that the state could not be 100% confident in the results that would come from this vendor, or with the processing speed, which is critical for COVID-19 testing.”
This came as AdventHealth, a non-profit health system based in Altamonte Springs, Fla., was having its own difficulties with MicroGenDX.
On May 16, AdventHealth announced that it had terminated a COVID-19 testing contract with an unnamed third-party lab, claiming that the provider was “unable to fulfill its obligation.” Multiple media outlets later revealed MicroGenDX as the third-party lab, and USA Today reported that the FDA had launched an investigation.
“This issue impacts more than 25,000 people throughout Central Florida,” stated an AdventHealth press release. “This situation has created unacceptable delays and we do not have confidence in the reliability of the tests.” AdventHealth said it would contact affected individuals about the need for retesting.
However, MicroGenDX CEO Rick Martin refuted the health system’s claims. “You can go after me because I didn’t meet your capacity and I couldn’t deliver on your drive-through testing because of things that I couldn’t control, but don’t attack the reliability of my test,” he told the Orlando Sentinel.
According to MicroGenDX, the company received an emergency use authorization (EUA) from the FDA on April 23 for an internally-developed RT-PCR test that can be performed on nasal swabs or sputum samples, noted a press release. The tests are run in the company’s lab facility in Lubbock, Texas.
One factor in the dispute was the handling of patient samples, USA Today reported. Martin told reporters that representatives from AdventHealth had visited the lab and observed samples that were stored at room temperature. “[Martin] maintains the samples were still valid and that the delays were due to AdventHealth not providing proper patient data and the lab running out of plastic parts used in its equipment,” noted USA Today.
Mahon told Florida Bulldog that the state did not send samples to MicroGenDX for processing. And the Florida Bulldog reported that Martin said his lab was so “hammered with huge volumes of samples” that he would have turned down any requests, adding that Martin “stood by the reliability and accuracy of his firm’s testing and said he looks forward to a day of vindication after federal inspectors conduct any inquiries.”
Collectively, these news stories scratch the surface of a bigger situation involving COVID-19 laboratory testing. The fact that Congress authorized billions of dollars to fund COVID-19 testing was noticed by some individuals who saw the funding as an opportunity to “make a quick buck” if they could get contracts to provide COVID-19 testing—whether they owned a CLIA-certified complex laboratory or not.
Thus, it’s no surprise that more companies are bidding on COVID-19 testing contracts. What remains unknown is how many of those companies are actively soliciting COVID-19 testing contracts throughout the United States.
Given this situation, and the facts recounted above, it is reasonable to ask an obvious question: Why did Florida state officials not do a more rigorous check into the credentials of the clinical laboratory entities they were preparing to award no-competitive-bid contracts to for COVID-19 testing?
CMMI, an organization within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), is charged with developing and testing new healthcare delivery and payment models as alternatives to the traditional fee-for-service (FFS) model. On November 1, 2019, CMMI released an informal Request for Information (RFI) seeking comments for the proposed Oncology Care First (OCF) model, which would be the successor to the Oncology Care Model (OCM) launched in 2016.
“The inefficiency and variation in oncology care in the
United States is well documented, with avoidable hospitalizations and emergency
department visits occurring frequently, high service utilization at the end of
life, and use of high-cost drugs and biologicals when lower-cost, clinically
equivalent options exist,” the CMMI RFI states.
With the proposed new model, “the Innovation Center aims to build on the lessons learned to date in OCM and incorporate feedback from stakeholders,” the RFI notes.
How the Oncology Care First Model Works
The OCF program, which is voluntary, will be open to
physician groups and hospital outpatient departments. CMMI anticipates that
testing of the model will run from January 2021 through December 2025.
It will offer two payment mechanisms for providers that
choose to participate:
A Monthly Population Payment (MPP) would apply
to a provider’s Medicare beneficiaries with “cancer or a cancer-related
diagnosis,” the RFI states. It would cover Evaluation and Management (EM)
services as well as drug administration services and a set of “Enhanced
Services,” including 24/7 access to medical records.
Of particular interest to medical laboratories, the RFI also
states that “we are considering the inclusion of additional services in the monthly
population payment, such as imaging or medical laboratory services, and seek
feedback on adding these or other services.”
In addition, providers could receive a
Performance-Based Payment (PBP) if they reduce expenditures for patients
receiving chemotherapy below a “target amount” determined by past Medicare
payments. If providers don’t meet the threshold, they could be required to
Practices that wish to participate in the OCF model must go through an application process. It is also open to participation by private payers. CMS reports that 175 practices and 10 payers are currently participating in the 2016 Oncology Care Model (OCM).
Medical Lab Leaders Concerned about the CMMI OCF Model
One group raising concerns about the inclusion of medical laboratory service reimbursements in the Monthly Population Payment scheme is the Personalized Medicine Coalition. “Laboratory services are crucial to the diagnosis and management of many cancers and are an essential component of personalized medicine,” wrote Cynthia A. Bens, the organization’s senior VP for public policy, in an open letter to CMMI Acting Director Amy Bassano. “We are concerned that adding laboratory service fees to the MPP may cause providers to view them as expenses that are part of the total cost of delivering care, rather than an integral part of the solution to attain high-value care,” Bens wrote.
She advised CMMI to “seek further input from the laboratory
and provider communities on how best to contain costs within the OCF model,
while ensuring the proper deployment of diagnostics and other laboratory
Members of the coalition include biopharma companies, diagnostic companies, patient advocacy groups, and clinical laboratory testing services. Lab testing heavyweights Quest Diagnostics (NYSE:DGX) and Laboratory Corporation of America (NYSE:LH) are both members.
CMS ‘Doubles Down’ on OCM
The proposal received criticism from other quarters as well. “While private- and public-sector payers would be well served to adopt and support a VBP [value-based payment] program for cancer care, we need to better understand some of the shortcomings of the original OCM design and adopt lessons learned from other successful VBP models to ensure uptake by providers and ultimately better oncology care for patients,” wrote members of the Oncology Care Model Work Group in a Health Affairs blog post. They added that with the new model, “CMS seems to double down on the same design as the OCM.”
Separately, CMMI has proposed a controversial Radiation
Oncology (RO) alternative payment model (APM) that would be mandatory for
practices in randomly-selected metro areas. The agency estimates that it would
apply to approximately 40% of the radiotherapy practices in the US.
These recent actions should serve to remind pathologists and
clinical laboratories that CMS continues to move away from fee-for-service and
toward value-based care payment models, and that it is critical to plan for
changing reimbursement strategies.
For blood brothers Quest and LabCorp this is good news, since the two medical laboratory companies perform most of the testing for the biggest DTC genetic test developers
Should clinical laboratories be concerned about direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests? Despite alerts from healthcare organizations about the accuracy of DTC genetic testing—as well as calls from privacy organizations to give DTC customers more control over the use of their genetic data—millions of people have already taken DTC tests to learn about their genetic ancestry. And millions more are expected to send samples of their saliva to commercial DTC companies in the near future.
This growing demand for at-home DTC tests does not appear to be subsiding. And since most of the genetic testing is completed by the two largest lab companies—Quest Diagnostics (NYSE:DGX) and Laboratory Corporation of America (NYSE:LH)—other medical laboratories have yet to find their niche in the DTC industry.
Another factor is the recent FDA authorization allowing DTC company 23andme to report the results of its pharmacogenetic (PGx) test directly to customers without requiring a doctor’s order. For these reasons, this trend looks to be gaining momentum and support from federal governing organizations.
Dark Daily has
reported on DTC genetic
testing for many years. According to MIT’s Technology Review, 26 million people—roughly
8% of the US population—have already taken at-home DNA tests. And that number
is expected to balloon to more than 100 million in the next 24 months!
“The genetic genie is out of the bottle. And it’s not going
back,” Technology Review reports.
The vast majority of the genetic information gathered goes into the databases of just four companies, with the top two—Ancestry and 23andMe—leading by a wide margin. The other two major players are FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage, however, Ancestry and 23andMe have heavily invested in online and television advertising, which is paying off.
As more people add their data to a given database, the likelihood they will find connections within that database increases. This is called the Network Effect (aka, demand-side economies of scale) and social media platforms grow in a similar manner. Because Ancestry and 23andMe have massive databases, they have more information and can make more connections for their customers. This has made it increasingly difficult for other companies to compete.
Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp do the actual gene sequencing
for the top players in the DTC genetic testing sector. The expected wave of new
DTC genetic test costumers (74 million in the next 24 months) will certainly
have a beneficial revenue impact on those two lab companies.
Why the Explosion in Genetic
Testing by Consumers?
In 2013, just over 100,000 people took tests to have their
DNA analyzed, mostly using Ancestry’s test, as Dark Daily reported. By 2017, that
number had risen to around 12 million, and though Ancestry still had the
majority market share, 23andMe was clearly becoming a force in the industry,
noted Technology Review.
And now there are several health-related reasons as well. For
example, the study of pharmacogenetics has led clinicians to understand that
certain genes reveal how our bodies process some medications. The FDA’s clearance
allows 23andMe to directly inform customers about “genetic variants that may be
associated with a patient’s ability to metabolize some medications to help
inform discussions with a healthcare provider. The FDA is authorizing the test
to detect 33 variants for multiple genes,” the FDA’s press
Controversy Over DTC
The use of DTC genetic tests for healthcare purposes is not without scrutiny by regulatory agencies. The FDA removed 23andMe’s original health test from the market in 2013. According to Technology Review, the FDA’s letter was “one of the angriest ever sent to a private company” and said “that the company’s gene predictions were inaccurate and dangerous for those who might not fully understand the results.”
23andMe continues to refine its DTC tests. However, the debate continues. In February of this year, the New York Times (NYT) editorial board published an op-ed warning consumers to be wary of health tests offered by 23andMe, saying the tests “look for only a handful of [genetic] errors that may or may not elevate your risk of developing the disease in question. And they don’t factor into their final analysis other information, like family history.”
Anne Wojcicki, CEO and co-founder of 23andMe, responded with her own op-ed to the NYT, titled, “23andMe Responds: Empowering Consumers.” In her letter, Wojcicki contends that people should be empowered to take control of their own health, and that 23andMe allows them to do just that. “While 23andMe is not a diagnostic test for individuals with a strong family history of disease, it is a powerful and accurate screening tool that allows people to learn about themselves and some for the most common clinically useful genetic conditions,” she wrote.
Nevertheless, privacy concerns remain:
Who owns the results, the company or the
Who can access them?
What happens to them a year or five years after
the test is taken?
When they are sold or used, are consumers
Even as experts question the accuracy of DTC genetic testing
in a healthcare context, and privacy concerns continue to grow, more people
each year are ordering the tests. With predictions of 74 million more tests
expected in the next 24 months, it’s certain that the medical laboratories that
process those tests will benefit.
Along with the appointment of its new President and CEO, Quest Diagnostics also announced that Daniel C. Stanzione, Ph.D., would become the Non-Executive Chairman of the Board for the Madison, New Jersey-based company. Stanzione has served as a Director on the Quest Board since 2004.
To ensure an orderly transition, Surya N. Mohapatra, Ph.D., the current Chairman, President, and CEO, will continue his duties through April 30, 2012. It was on October 25, 2011, when Quest Diagnostics disclosed a succession plan and stated that Mohapatra, now 61 years old, would serve for an additional six months as the company conducted its search for another CEO.