Omicron: Can at-home COVID-19 tests tell you which variant you have?

With the delta variant of the novel coronavirus still responsible for 99% of COVID-19 infections in the US, and the omicron variant being reported in 29 states, are novel coronavirus tests still accurate and are they able to tell you which COVID-19 variant you may have?

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It is common for viruses to change, or mutate, over time. The result is a slightly different version of the virus. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said it “works closely with test developers to identify potential impacts of virus mutations on FDA authorized COVID-19 tests and help ensure there is minimal impact on test performance.”

With an increase in the number of rapid COVID-19 tests available at drugstores for at-home use, some are wondering is they are still able to detect a case of the virus and whether they can tell you if you have the delta or newly-discovered omicron variant of the virus.

Here is what we know now about COVID-19 tests and what they can detect.

With different variants emerging, can over-the-counter coronavirus tests still detect COVID-19? Can they tell you which variant you have?

Researchers say it appears that over-the-counter coronavirus tests are still good at detecting the virus, despite variants of the virus.

They say the tests currently available will give an answer as to whether you have the virus that causes COVID-19 or not. What they won’t do is tell you which variant you have.

To identify which variant a person has, genome sequencing is required. Genome sequencing is done in a laboratory.

When you have a test at a health care facility, the results from that test will go to labs at local health departments or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for genome sequencing. It takes a while for that testing to be done, but the results help public health officials to track the spread of the virus and be on alert for variants.

Generally, you will not be notified as to what variant you have if you have tested positive for the infection.

How are tests still able to find the coronavirus if the variant is different from the original virus?

PCR tests, the type of tests you can get at your drugstore, are designed to look for a certain genetic pattern that signals the SARS-CoV-2 virus is present in a person’s body. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is the virus that causes COVID-19.

While variants, by their nature, are changes to the pattern of the virus, scientists believe the tests can still pick up enough of the pattern of the virus to confirm a person has been infected with SARS-CoV-2.

“So far it looks like most tests will be able to handle the omicron mutations so that a person infected with the variant can still be diagnosed,” Barry Lutz, co-founder and chief scientific adviser of Anavasi Diagnostics, told Prevention.com.

What types of tests are available to detect a COVID-19 infection?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized two types of tests to determine whether a person has or has had a COVID-19 infection.

The first is a diagnostic test, which shows if you have an active coronavirus infection. According to the FDA, there are two types of diagnostic tests — molecular (RT-PCR) tests that detect the virus’s genetic material, and antigen tests that detect specific proteins on the surface of the virus. Samples are typically collected with a nasal or throat swab, or saliva collected by spitting into a tube.

The second type of test is an antibody test. Antibody tests look for antibodies that are made by the immune system in response to a threat, such as a virus. Antibody tests should not be used to diagnose an active coronavirus infection, because it takes some time for a person’s body to produce antibodies after it is infected with a virus.

Researchers are not yet sure if the presence of antibodies means that you are immune to the coronavirus in the future.

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