Oops: Emirates’ Inaccurate Rapid COVID-19 Testing

Filed Under: Emirates

It would appear that Emirates’ rapid COVID-19 testing was too good to be true…

Emirates became first airline to trial rapid COVID-19 testing

In mid-April, Emirates made headlines for becoming the first airline to conduct rapid COVID-19 tests on passengers prior to taking flights. Emirates wasn’t doing this on a widespread basis, but rather trialed it for a repatriation flight to Tunisia.

Passengers had their fingers pricked, and within 10 minutes they had the results from the tests.

Realistically if we’re going to get back to normalizing travel, we’re going to need more testing. If something like the rapid COVID-19 testing worked, it could make a world of difference, especially given how quickly the results were available.

While getting a finger pricked prior to a flight isn’t exactly fun, I think many of us would consider it a small price to pay if it allowed us to travel freely.

At the time the airline was working on plans to scale up testing to include more flights, which could potentially have had huge implications… if the testing actually worked.

Emirates’ rapid COVID-19 testing

Testing found to be only 30% accurate

The National is now reporting that rapid blood tests will no longer be used at the airport, as they have been found to be extremely inaccurate. This testing had been trialed in Spain, where it was found that there was only a 30% accuracy rate, rather than the expected 80% accuracy rate.

To be clear, I’m not blaming Emirates for this — obviously they weren’t involved in the design of the test. Rather I’m connecting this to Emirates because they’re the only airline I know of that trialed this, and I’m focused on this test from the perspective of the impact it could have on air travel.

Going forward the Dubai Health Authority will exclusively use the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which requires taking a nasal swab sample.

Blood tests are really only accurately being used to determine if someone has had COVID-19 in the past and built up antibodies, rather than determining if a person has it at that point. For example, in the UK an antibody blood test has been approved that’s said to be 100% accurate, though that’s about the extent to which blood testing seems useful here.

Emirates’ rapid COVID-19 testing

Bottom line

Unfortunately a test with results within 10 minutes is too good to be true when it comes to determining if you’re fit to fly. We’ll have to hope for improved testing in other areas, though this definitely isn’t the airport testing savior that we’ve been hoping for…

  1. @ Ben — “If something like the rapid COVID-19 testing worked, it could make a world of difference, especially given how quickly the results were available.” This would increase demand from 10% to maybe 20%. It would be logistical disaster. No way is getting a finger prick and waiting for a test result the answer to the airlines’ issues. It may only make things worse, as it would scare off so many people.

  2. As of today, the only reliable test is the PCR ( Polymerase Chain Reaction) from the nasal swabs. The results can be ready in a couple of hours. Again it’s a sensitive test and can have occasional false negative and false positive results if not performed correctly

  3. I have a doctor in the house (specifically a pathologist – who deals with blood cancer) and she said that a very small amount of the virus is in the blood. Therefore blood tests weren’t exactly the best option.

    As for the antibody test in the UK, that’s really cool. As far as I know it’s really easy for the test to show false positives for antibodies so to be really close to certain can have a big impact on travel.

  4. Well according to the article it seemed like y were using the blood test to check for antibodies. That seems silly as a screening test as negative antibody tests can mean active infection or negative for infection.
    Also as widely publicized the positive predictive value of even the best antibody test is about 50% on a population not very affected by COVID.

  5. I just took an antibody blood test at my Doctor’s office this afternoon. Took two minutes, is free for his patients, and I get the results in two days. They are widely available now and I am sure that we are close to having ones that will be almost instant with results. I was working in New York the first week in March when everything broke there…so why not see?

    While the antibodies mean nothing definitive at this point, if everyone took the test we could at least get a grasp on the actual number of infections and gain more experience.

  6. Roche are providing the UK – there are a few companies with close to 100% accuracy now on Covid testing , Roche testing is avail in the US (was actually approved before the UK)

  7. Testing right before the flight is a very dangerous idea.

    Imagine you were on a lovely gorilla tracking trip in Virunga National Park, in Goma and were about to fly out of Goma. At the airport you fail your 10 minute test. Or imagine you were hiking Kilminjaro, and then in Arusha airport you faiil the 10 minute test. Or you were in the Salt Flats of Bolivia and in Uyuni airport you failed the 10 minute test. Or you had saved a lot of money for an expensive Swiss vacation on miles, and right before your ZRH-NYC first class flight bought on miles, you fail the test.

    Now what?

    The airline will obviously deny you boarding. Your visa is likely about to expire. You are on the hook for any medical issues in countries that cannot handle it, or quarantines in govt facilities, or expensive hotels in Switzerland. You fail to show up for your job for 2-3 more weeks, and are fired. There’s no other jobs to be found right now so you go homeless.

    Normalization of this testing on airports can have drastic consequences if you fail the test.

  8. Check primerdesign from the novacyt group. FDA EUA Approved, CE IVD approved, UK approved, WHO approved (was the 2nd alongside roche) to be approved, I could go on. They are 100% accurate and have mobile test kits that are set to be released and can run tests in less than 30mins…..Listed on Aim in UK and the gold standard for PCR testing. Ability to produce 10m tests a month already. Supplying the UK government 488,000 tests a week now.

  9. @Stuart
    Yes antibody tests currently can be an academic exercise to see the level of asymptomatic spread in the community.
    But as a preflight screening tool, not good.

  10. @Jonathan

    I don’t even want to imagine what would happen if Elizabeth Holmes is still running the show.

    She could be selling a rapid test kit with 110% accuracy in 3 minutes before end of February.
    By March 100% Americans are tested and shows very few positive results, hence no social distancing measures.
    By April, 70% Americans are infected, 3 million dead.
    By May, 95% Americans are infected, over 20 million dead. Local government collapses.
    By June Donald Trump is still denying everything and claim MAGA while under a ventilator.
    By July, unfortunately some people are harder to kill, Donald Trump fully recovers and still deny everything. Free Mason failed to create New World Order since Trump can’t be killed. Peace is restored.

  11. @Greg And getting on a long flight while infected isn’t dangerous?

    Also, most of those concerns would exist whether or not there’s testing on the flight. If you’re worried about traveling to a location that doesn’t have great medical care, you could get sick early in the trip, or on your way there, or even before, and then you’re screwed. If you’re worried about losing your job because you’re out sick for 2-3 weeks, maybe don’t travel where you up your risk of getting infected? But I’m also not sure that it’s legal to fire you for getting sick (though maybe they fire you because they determine your judgment is lacking given that you went on an international vacation in Africa during a pandemic).

    Anyway, I echo what Steven says – if you’re concerned about those things, maybe just don’t leisure travel during a pandemic. Otherwise, it’s a risk you assume. Sucks, but that’s the world we live in right now, and it’s not exactly a surprise so you can’t really claim ignorance.

  12. There’s a surprise.

    When this was announced it didn’t add up. Why would this only be effective here, when if it was effective it would be lots of other places.

    Oh, and Emirates aren’t the only airline using this.

  13. I could be mistaken here but most of the blood tests look at antibodies, which you would only develop if your body has caught the virus and developed immunity from it. Hence, someone who is in the early stages of SARS-2, where they are contagious but haven’t yet built up any antibodies for it (since it is a novel SARS virus) would show a negative on the test. What is needed are blood antigen tests which so far as I can tell there aren’t any that accurately spot SARS-2.

  14. @James Simpson

    Gotta agree, if they’re using the antibody tests to determine if a passenger has Covid-19 of course it’s not going to be accurate since there’s a 5ish day window after someone gets the virus where they won’t have antibodies.

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