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  • Federal regulators have authorized a new at-home test that can detect COVID-19, the flu, and other respiratory ailments.
  • They say the test can help prevent the spread of these illnesses.
  • They note, however, that the test’s high cost may limit who can use it and curtail its benefit as a public health tracking tool.

Wondering whether your cough and congestion are symptoms of COVID-19, the flu, or another respiratory illness?

You can now find out with a single test.

The Labcorp Seasonal Respiratory Virus RT-PCR DTC Test, which simultaneously screens for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, the influenza A and B viruses, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), has been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA granted emergency use authorization (EUA) for the Labcorp test on May 16. It’s the first nonprescription COVID-19 test authorized by the federal agency that also screens for other respiratory ailments.

“This new at-home collection kit makes it easier for consumers to access testing for multiple respiratory viruses – COVID-19, the flu, and RSV – that can present similar symptoms,” said Dr. Brian Caveney, the chief medical officer and president of Labcorp Diagnostics, in a statement. “With the spike in RSV cases over the last year, the continued presence of COVID-19, and the ever-present threat of flu, testing for all three viruses at once enables individuals and physicians to quickly identify the illness and determine the appropriate treatment.”

“RSV, flu, and COVID are some of the more dangerous of the respiratory viruses,” Dr. Anna Van Tuyl, the director of the Division of Critical Care at Staten Island University Hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine in New York, told Healthline. “There are potential treatments for influenza and COVID depending on your co-morbidities and duration of illness.”

Pia MacDonald, Ph.D., an infectious disease epidemiologist with the nonprofit educational institute RTI International, added, “In the future, there will be times in the year where all three viruses could be circulating at the same time… Once an individual knows they are infected, preventing spread from one person to another will include similar strategies for each of the three viruses, such as masking and frequent handwashing.”

The new combination test can help eliminate confusion about the symptoms of these three illnesses, noted Kristen Nichols, PharmD, a senior content management consultant for the clinical effectiveness business at Wolters Kluwer Health, a healthcare information provider.

However, she stressed, that a negative test result doesn’t prove that you’re not sick — or infectious.

“One thing to note is that there are definitely other respiratory viruses that can cause similar syndromes that wouldn’t be detected on this test,” Nichols told Healthline. “You could also be infected with a different respiratory virus that wouldn’t be on this panel — for example, parainfluenza, human metapneumovirus, rhinovirus, and adenoviruses. So for someone that has classic symptoms of an upper respiratory viral infection, they should avoid spreading their germs even if the tests are negative.”

Users of the Labcorp Seasonal Respiratory Virus RT-PCR DTC Test self-collect nasal samples at home using a swab.

They then mail the sample to Labcorp for analysis. Results are delivered through an online portal, with referrals to a healthcare professional available as needed.

Test kits cost $169 and can be purchased in retail stores or online.

A Labcorp spokesperson told Healthline that the tests are available with no upfront cost to individuals who have health insurance and who meet clinical guidelines, such as having symptoms of a respiratory infection.

But Nichols said it remains unclear whether insurers will cover the full cost of the combination test. Van Tuyl added the price of the Labcorp test makes it unlikely that it will supplant the COVID-only tests already on the market.

“There is a big cost difference between the single COVID-19 test and the combination test,” she explained. “It may not be worth the extra cost just to know you do or do not have the other viral illnesses.”

“Having the test available for purchase and use without a prescription makes it possible to use without taking time off work, school, or securing child care. For some people, that will be important and helpful,” MacDonald told Healthline. “Nonetheless, the price of $169 makes it prohibitive for many people to purchase.”

“From a research and public health perspective, having a large group of people who use these routinely and report their status could be an excellent way to monitor the viruses in our communities,” added MacDonald. “However, in practice, at this point, the price is likely too high to be used for public health population-based surveillance.”

Van Tuyl said the combination tests could have utility for testing people who are high risk, have high risk family members, or in pediatric patients.

“For example, if you have a high risk family member, you may want to use the combo test, to test anyone with symptoms who is coming into contact with that person,” she said.