Courtesy of Abbott
Courtesy of Ellume
The new must-have accessory for international travel? A COVID self-test kit.
The BINAXNow and Ellume COVID-19 home tests are among the options at travelers’ disposal. We road tested them to see how they actually fare while traveling.
When the CDC issued new guidance regarding its testing requirement for international travel on May 7, there was a collective sigh of relief as travelers hoped that entering the United States from abroad, or returning to the U.S. from another country, would be a little less complicated.
In the May 7 update the agency stated that “international air passengers traveling to the United States can use a self-test (sometimes referred to as home test).”
As of January 26, all international passengers age two and older flying into the U.S. (including returning U.S. citizens and permanent residents) must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test procured within three days before boarding their flight to the U.S. And up until May 7, the tests had to be laboratory generated, meaning travelers had to figure out how to find and get a COVID-19 test abroad that satisfied the requirement.
Thus, the option for travelers to bring with them COVID-19 home or self-tests offers the promise of less hassle. But what we discovered was that in practice, there are some potential hiccups that travelers should be aware of before they buy and pack these tests (see below for our full reviews).
In order to meet the CDC requirements, the tests can be self-administered as long as they meet these criteria:
For those who would prefer to get tested in the destination, numerous airlines as well as international hotels, including in Mexico, Costa Rica, and the Caribbean, have introduced testing options and resources to help Americans fulfill the CDC testing requirement abroad.
For travelers ready to pack self-tests to bring with them, the CDC cautions that some countries may have rules or restrictions in place regarding the importation of COVID-19 test kits that are not authorized or registered there. “Travelers who are considering bringing a U.S.-authorized test with them for use outside of the United States should contact authorities at their destination for information before they travel,” the CDC advises.
So, what are the options for test kits for those who would like to try bringing one along? Most at-home COVID-19 test kits still require users to physically mail their sample to a laboratory. That’s fine if you’re in the United States, but not very plausible if you’re abroad and need a test result from within three days of flying to the United States. There are, however, COVID-19 test kits we found that meet the CDC requirements and offer the self-test option, produce results without a laboratory, and include a telehealth service.
Buy now: $150 for a pack of six, eMed.com
The BinaxNOW COVID-19 home test is one of the few tests on the market with FDA emergency use authorization that does not require the user to ship a sample to a lab. It’s a rapid antigen self-test designed to detect both asymptomatic and symptomatic COVID-19. It can be used for children as young as 4 when the sample is collected by an adult—those 15 and older can collect their own sample.
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BinaxNOW was developed by health and medical diagnostics company Abbott. A trained telehealth professional guides users through the at-home self-test via a video call via eMed.com, which will also deliver their COVID-19 test results to their email. The standard kit comes with one nasal swab—the technique for sample collection is less invasive than the very deep nasal swab sample collection we’ve all heard horror stories about (if not endured ourselves).
“It was super easy,” says Bryan Kinkade, AFAR’s publisher, who used the BinaxNow home tests for himself and his family for a trip to Costa Rica this spring. His one piece of advice is to make sure to have “a solid Wi-Fi connection” so that you can download the app and conduct the telehealth video call. “They walk you through the entire process,” he says, remarking that the test is very similar to a pregnancy test—after 15 minutes or so the results pop up on the reader. “The healthcare provider comes back on camera to verify the results that you hold up to the camera, and then you can instantly see [your] results in the app.”
After getting his results, he uploaded them directly into the United Airlines app to check in for the flight back to the United States. “I repeated the process with my wife and son, and 45 minutes after we started, my son was walking back to the beach for an afternoon surf. We were down there with some friends who were stressed out all week hoping that the local clinic would be open, that there wouldn’t be a line or any issues getting results back quickly.”
However, in early August, international travelers planning to use Abbott’s BinaxNOW COVID-19 at-home test faced wait times of three hours or more to log onto the telehealth video call with a certified guide authorized by the manufacturer to supervise the testing procedure.
“We can confirm that we are experiencing unusually high call volumes in great part due to increased infection numbers being reported,” said Carlos Correcha-Price, chief communications and marketing officer at eMed, in a statement to AFAR. “We are seeing a massive spike in testing. Our wait times were recently more than two hours, and eMed has already added additional staff around the clock to help alleviate the wait times for our customers.”
Adding staff appears to be fixing the issue, but follow these tips from AFAR’s Lyndsey Matthews to make sure you don’t end up having to scramble to book a last-minute test locally abroad.
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Though BinaxNOW has received a bit more attention, Australia-based digital diagnostics company Ellume was actually the first to market with a COVID-19 home test, and it partnered with Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines to give passengers easy access to home antigen tests. (You can now buy a kit online—one 15-minute test with a video observation by Azova, an online healthcare provider, will give results for both asymptomatic and symptomatic cases, for ages two and up.) How were they so speedy? Dr. Sean Parsons, Ellume’s CEO and founder, had been working on getting a home flu test to market since 2010 and was able to pivot—the buzzword of 2020—quickly to get approval on a COVID test. “The FDA knew all about our technology, from the work we’d been doing [on the flu test],” Parsons told AFAR. “We feel as if we’re on the cusp—we’re just about there. As a company, we’re already looking to combine our flu assets with our COVID assets to make a combined COVID-flu test, which is the natural progression. It’s coming!”
Until then, international travelers can pack one test kit for every family member over the age of two and—as long as the Wi-Fi is decent and a video-call appointment is scheduled a week out—they can take the Ellume test anywhere in the world. The kit has an easy-to-use smartphone app that asks you to register the bio basics of the patient (name, age, address), then serves up a mandatory how-to video you can’t fast-forward through (a bit annoying on the fourth go, but understandably necessary). After the step-by-step walkthrough, you swab each nostril, dip the swab in fluid, and put the fluid reader near your phone for 15 minutes. Buzzer goes off, and you have your results, which are also emailed to you.
A friendly reminder that for all antigen tests, false positives are possible. (My two-year-old got one and prompted a fair bit of panic and a follow-up PCR test at a nearby clinic.) “A false positive is really frustrating and worrying and anxiety provoking; a false negative is genuinely dangerous. That’s the tradeoff,” says Parsons. “So we said we’ll chase the positives pretty hard. As a result we had the best clinical performance of all the rapid tests out on the market. We think that’s still very important for when you go traveling. If you take our test and it’s negative, you can be pretty darn sure that you’re negative.” —Laura Dannen Redman
Some of the other at-home COVID-19 test kits on the market with the option to mail the sample to a laboratory include one for $89 from LetsGetChecked that American Airlines also offers its customers (oddly at an increased cost of $119), a saliva test made by Clinical Reference Laboratory and available through Walgreens Find Care for $99 (Walgreens also sells a home test kit made by Everlywell for $109), and Pixel by Labcorp for $119. It is worth checking for updates on these products in the coming days and weeks as developers could create a version that is compatible with the new self-test option.
Vault also offers a $119 kit for travel to the U.S. from Mexico, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic with an international shipping option.
Correction (May 11, 2021): The original version of this article mentioned that the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Self Test, available for $24 at Walgreens, satisfies the CDC’s requirement for international arrivals. That test does not meet the CDC’s requirements and is intended for personal use. The BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Home Test, available on eMed.com and mentioned above, does meet the CDC’s requirements for international arrivals.
This article was originally published on May 10, 2021; it was updated on August 11, 2021, with new information.
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