A woman demonstrates LabGold, a pen cap-sized COVID-19 PCR swab test...

A woman demonstrates LabGold, a pen cap-sized COVID-19 PCR swab test that can be inserted just inside the nose by an individual.  Credit: Northwell Health

Northwell Health is betting a new COVID-19 test that it says is just as accurate as more expensive — and more invasive — nasal swabs will prove popular among patients and employers.

The New Hyde Park-based health system has begun offering a new, self-administered COVID-19 test called LabGold. Its development was funded in part by a $2.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The test involves the same technology used in tests given by health care workers who in some cases insert so-called brain-tickling swabs deep into the nasal passages, all the way to the back of the throat. The new test lets users swipe a small nasal swab just inside their own nostrils, Northwell said.

The polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests are processed at Northwell Health Labs, and results come back within 24 hours, Northwell said. The person being tested registers on a smartphone or computer and uses the device’s camera to scan the barcoded tube that contains the swab.

The new test costs roughly $20 to $25, according to Northwell. By contrast, hospitals charge a median price of $148 for PCR tests, a report by the Peterson Center on Healthcare and KFF, or Kaiser Family Foundation, shows.

The Port Authority has begun using the LabGold test for routine screening of workers, and Northwell expects to process an average of a few thousand tests a week for the Port Authority, said Dr. Dwayne Breining, executive director of Northwell Health Labs. The health system also is in talks with several other large employers, including school districts, he said.

Workplace screening "is one of the great uses for this type of testing, because it's so easy," Breining said. The new test, he said, "is a significant game changer and can only help the public health efforts for getting COVID under control."

Users register on their phone or laptop and scan the barcode...

Users register on their phone or laptop and scan the barcode on the LabGold test to identify their specimen when it goes to Northwell Health Labs. Credit: Northwell Health

A Port Authority spokeswoman did not respond to questions on Monday.

Northwell has offered the test to its own employees since January, in cases when employees have been exposed to COVID-19, Breining said.

Northwell will collect large batches of tests from employers, the health system said. Northwell also expects to offer the tests to individual consumers, who can bring the swabs to Northwell labs on Long Island, in New York City and in Westchester and the Hudson Valley.

The cost of COVID-19 testing is likely to become a hot-button issue, experts on employment law said. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is expected to announce new regulations this month, spelling out the details of President Joe Biden’s mandate that all private employers with 100 or more employees begin requiring vaccination or weekly testing, said Brian S. Conneely, a partner at Rivkin Radler.

It remains to be seen how large-scale routine testing programs will be funded, and how much of the cost burden will fall on insurance companies, employers and workers, he said. "That’s up in the air right now," Conneely said.

PCR tests are considered the gold standard of COVID-19 testing, catching nearly all infections, researchers say.

Northwell’s new self-tests are just as accurate as PCR tests given by health care workers, Breining said.

In addition to PCR tests, there’s a different type of COVID-19 test that consumers can purchase for at-home use, whose results are available within 15 minutes. Researchers say those rapid antigen tests catch 85% of COVID-19 cases, or fewer.

Northwell said it can process up to 100,000 LabGold specimens per day. The tests require little handling by specialized health care workers, Breining said. "That’s one of the real savings," he said. "The more automated it can be, the cheaper it can be."

Northwell's new PCR test was developed by Delaware-based Corteva Agriscience, Indiana-based Quantigen and Ireland-based SteriPack, with funding from the Gates Foundation. Northwell said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in August authorized Northwell and United Kingdom-based LGC to offer LabGold at Northwell Health Labs.

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