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From October 24th, fully vaccinated passengers arriving in the UK from countries, not on the red list, can now take a pre departure lateral flow test instead of the previously required PCR test.

While this move has been welcomed by many – as they felt PCR tests were expensive, others are not so sure it is a good thing. There has been some discussion in the past regarding how accurate lateral flow tests actually are – and so in this article, we will take a closer look at the current evidence around how reliable they actually are.

What are lateral flow tests?

Lateral flow tests, also sometimes called antigen tests, are COVID-19 tests that can process samples quickly – without the need for laboratory equipment. They differ from the PCR test (polymerase chain reaction) test which looks for genetic material from the virus, and so need laboratory equipment to achieve a result.

The main benefits of the switch from PCR tests to lateral flow tests for travellers, is that they generate results that are easy to understand, are available within half an hour, and can be completed in the comfort of your own home without the need to send a sample of to the lab to process.

Back in December 2020, the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) issued a EUA (Exceptional Use Authorisation) to the DHSC (Department of Health and Social Care) to allow the use of the lateral flow self-test meaning they can now be used by the general public, who have no experience of testing, in their own home or in a community setting such as a place of work.

How does the pre departure lateral flow test work?

The lateral flow test has not been invented just for use during the COVID pandemic, it is actually an already established test that has been adapted to be able to detect the presence of a particular protein target. It has become popular in healthcare settings in the past, thanks to the fact it is affordable, easy to use, has a high level of accuracy and delivers quick results.

Perhaps the most well-known example of a lateral flow test is the home pregnancy test.

In the case of COVID-19, the lateral flow test looks for the proteins that are commonly found in the COVID-19 virus.

The pre departure lateral flow test kit consists of a hand-held device that has an absorbant pad at one end and a reading window at the other. Inside this device is a strip of test paper that will change colour in the presence of COVID-19 proteins or antigens.

Travellers take a swab from their nostrils, following the sample collection instructions. You can then upload an image of your lateral flow device and its reading to our web portal, to receive your laboratory certificate.

What do lateral flow test results mean?

If you get a positive result from a lateral flow test, it is likely that you are currently infected with the COVD-19 virus and so risk infecting others.

If you do get a positive result on your lateral flow test then you need to report your results on gov.uk within 24 hours of receiving them. It is also advised that you take a further PCR test to confirm the result.

If you receive a negative result from your pre departure lateral flow test then it means that the test has not been able to detect the COVID-19 virus in the sample you provided.

Are lateral flow tests 100% reliable?

No. The MHRA has come out and stated that “no test is 100% reliable”, not even those that meet the performance and safety regulatory requirements.

However, recent research from the University College of London (UCL) has shown that lateral flow tests are more accurate in detecting COVID-19 than has previously been reported, with findings that the tests will detect most people at risk of transmitting COVID-19. Researchers at UCL found that lateral flow tests are likely to be more than 80% effective at detecting any level of infection, and more than 90% effective at detecting those who are the most infectious.

However, the UCL report did go on to say that lateral flow tests cannot be compared “like for like” with PCR tests as lateral flow tests only detect material from the surface proteins of the virus and are likely to give a result only when someone is infectious, whereas PCR tests detect the genetic material of the virus, which can be found weeks after a person is no longer infectious.

Where can I get a pre departure lateral flow test for travel?

Although lateral flow tests are available through the NHS, these are not for use for travel purposes. Instead, pre departure lateral flow tests should be purchased from a government-approved private provider – such as Fit2FlyTest. We offer inbound and outbound pre departure lateral flow tests for travel with your results and an internationally recognized fit to fly certificate being issued within 6 hours of your uploading your test images (between 9 am and 6 pm GMT).

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