Here’s How One of the Rapid Tests Used by the White House WorksSkip to Comments
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Here’s How One of the Rapid Tests Used by the White House Works

Since the early days of the pandemic, the Trump administration has relied primarily on rapid coronavirus tests manufactured by Abbott Laboratories to test its staff members. One of the those devices — called ID Now — was used until the end of August or early September, when the White House switched to another quick test called BinaxNOW.

ID Now, shown below, produces a result in less than 15 minutes but has been found to sometimes miss infections.

When someone is tested, first, a sample is collected with a swab. It can be a simple swipe of the nose or throat, but for more reliable results, the swab must be inserted deep into the cavity between the nose and mouth.

Nasal cavity



Nasal cavity



Illustration by Guilbert Gates

(The White House would not comment on whether its staffers are tested with a deep swab or a less invasive one.)

After sample collection, the swab is then taken to the testing unit for processing.

The unit, called ID Now and produced by Abbott Laboratories, is about the size of a toaster.

The process starts by placing two disposable plastic pieces under the lid: an orange test base and a blue sample receiver. The machine then begins warming up, heating elements like acids and detergents that help break apart the coronavirus.

Three minutes later, a foil seal is removed from the blue sample receiver, and the swab is swirled around for 10 seconds, mixing the sample with liquid inside.

A transfer cartridge is then used to move the sample to the orange test base.

After the lid of the unit is closed, it immediately begins running the test. If coronavirus is present in the sample, liquid in the test base amplifies a segment of the virus’s RNA.

In five to 13 minutes, the unit displays a result.

A new study from New York University, which has not yet been reviewed by other scientists, found that the ID Now machines missed more than 48 percent of positive cases when using dry nasal swabs.

“These results are not consistent with other studies of the test,” said Scott Stoffel, a vice president of public affairs at Abbott Laboratories. “It’s unclear if the samples were tested correctly in this study.”

In April, hospitals and researchers found that if a swab were stored in a liquid solution before testing, the sample could become diluted, producing a negative result for someone who was infected. Abbott later revised its instructions, recommending that once a sample was collected, to place the dry swab directly into the ID Now unit.

The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization for ID Now devices to be used for coronavirus testing in late March. There are 18,000 ID Now testing units in the United States, according to Abbott, and the company says it has produced more than 1.8 million of the kits required for the machine to test for the virus.