China is allowing the public to take COVID-19 rapid antigen self-tests for the first time as infection numbers hit a two-year high in recent days. Online marketplaces including JD.com and Meituan are now taking pre-orders for home test kits from government-approved manufacturers, including Shenzhen-based gene giant BGI. The products will also be available through drugstores nationwide.
For the past two years, China has upheld a “zero-COVID” containment policy that has kept its case numbers low, but the strategy is increasingly tested by the more contagious Omicron variant. China has relied exclusively on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, a type of molecular/nucleic acid test, to identify cases, unlike Western countries that have adopted rapid antigen tests as a commercially available alternative.
PCR tests, while widely recognized as more accurate than antigen tests, require healthcare professionals to collect samples which will then be sent to a lab to get the results. Antigen tests, in comparison, can be carried out at home and generate results in less than an hour.
China’s drug regulator approved five COVID-19 antigen self-test products on Saturday, just a day after the country’s National Health Commission announced antigen detection had been added as an option of public testing.
The introduction of self-test kits is not to be taken as a signal that China is relaxing its zero-COVID strategy anytime soon. The health authority stated that rapid tests are aimed at aiding the early discovery of COVID infections while nucleic acid tests remain the benchmark standard for case confirmation.
At best, home kits will help take some pressure off an overwhelmed PCR testing regime. Local authorities in China usually order mass PCR testing whenever a few locally transmitted cases hit a city. In dense neighborhoods, residents often have to queue up hours for their swabs. The results from their PCR tests will then be digitally synced to a national “health code” on their phones, without which they’d be turned away by apartment compounds, restaurants, office buildings or public transport.
Exactly how China will regulate the use of these self-test kits remain to be seen; for example, how does the government ensure residents will voluntarily inform the local authority when they receive a positive result at home? At least from what the preliminary government instructions say, home testing will still be monitored by “relevant administrative departments.”