Beyond Covid, lateral flow testing is here to stay

Only a few years ago the benefits of lateral flow diagnostic tests weren’t widely understood outside of scientific circles.

The reason most people came into contact with the technology was through the home pregnancy test – its original and still most widely used application.

Now, due to the Covid 19 pandemic, lateral flow is no longer unknown. As we can see from Google Trends the term itself has entered the public consciousness.

That’s because across the world, the tests are being used by governments, health authorities and even large organizations to screen huge groups of people who don’t have Covid 19 symptoms.

A recent study in the U.K. looked into the performance of antigen lateral flow devices and confirmed that they can be a powerful tool as part of a wider testing strategy.

The study found that the most sensitive lateral flow tests detected 89.5 per cent of cases that lead to onward transmission.

EU countries including Austria, Germany and Belgium have purchased large numbers of rapid antigen lateral flow tests for their populations, while Canada recently introduced a workplace screening program using the tests.

In the U.K., the government has said that regular rapid testing using lateral flow tests will be “fundamental” in helping to prevent future outbreaks.

Even Singapore, which has had a robust testing program since the pandemic started, has recently incorporated rapid testing to speed up its contact tracing system.

So, where does the technology go from here?

It’s positive that regular lateral flow testing is being seen by governments and others as a way out of this pandemic and back to normality.

But now that the benefits of lateral flow are more widely appreciated – especially its affordability, accuracy and speed – there is a huge opportunity for test developers and manufacturers to really push for the wider adoption of the technology.

The challenge for test developers and manufacturers now is to keep lateral flow testing in the public consciousness after the pandemic – it needs to be seen as the mainstream way of rapidly testing for a wide range of infectious diseases at scale, such as HIV, Ebola, malaria and Zika virus.

And with warnings that Covid won’t be the last pandemic we see in our lifetime, lateral flow must continue to be seen as a vital tool in future outbreaks.

But to be an effective tool for the purpose of prevention, the data that lateral flow tests can produce needs to be collected at scale and shared easily and at speed.

How to transform lateral flow with digital

Introducing digital connectivity and data collection to a lateral flow test can significantly enhance its capabilities.

Digitizing a test means results and  associated subject data are collected by a user-friendly mobile app, sent to the cloud and securely stored for future analysis. This way, testing becomes an extremely powerful tool – and results recording is made easier with less room for human error.

Globally, this type of system can be used by governments and health agencies to monitor infectious diseases and identify outbreak hotspots, allowing medical interventions to be targeted with greater accuracy.

But the data collected can be even more valuable, giving a more detailed picture of each individual tested – their age, gender, underlying conditions and symptoms all gathered at the point of testing.

Lateral flow has applications beyond disease testing

Infectious disease testing shouldn’t be seen as the only, or indeed the main application – lateral flow can bring affordable diagnostics to large numbers of people, opening up and democratizing healthcare across the world.

It can also be a vital part of the recovery of our health systems — a way to help ease some of the huge burdens that Covid has placed on medical facilities and those who work in them.

Lateral flow has the potential to give people access to a range of quick, affordable and accurate tests they can perform at home to screen for a variety of health conditions.

By doing this we can cut the number of people becoming patients, freeing up resources that can be used elsewhere in our health systems.

And with digital connectivity and data collection, lateral flow can become a part of daily life. As well as home pregnancy and fertility tests, people could test themselves for sexually transmitted diseases, or for high levels of cholesterol, or for cardiac markers that might indicate heart disease.

Using a digital reader, such as a cellphone app, they can collect that data and share it instantly with their family doctor.

Every home test saves public health funding and puts people in control of their own health and wellbeing.

It’s not just human health in which lateral flow can have an impact. The technology is already widely used to detect diseases in animals – both domestic and livestock – in food safety – to test for foodborne pathogens and contaminants – and in environmental testing – soil, water and air.

The diagnostics industry must react positively

So, it’s clear lateral flow is here to stay. It has grown beyond the home pregnancy test in the eyes of the public and truly proved its worth in the pandemic.

As an industry, we should seize this opportunity. If we want lateral flow to continue to be seen as an effective and affordable diagnostics solution, both by governments and the wider public, we must continue to innovate.

If we work together in partnership, sharing new ideas and technologies, we can make lateral flow an even more valuable solution for the problems of the future.

Photo: georgeclerk, Getty Images