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Harvard researcher leads study on rapid, at-home COVID-19 testing with Citigroup Inc. workers

An Innova rapid test
An Innova rapid testLEON NEAL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

A Harvard professor who is an outspoken advocate of cheap, rapid, at-home coronavirus tests is leading a study of the tests that will focus on thousands of workers at Citigroup Inc.

Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a media briefing Wednesday morning that about 1,000 people had been enrolled in the study so far. Plans call for about 6,000 people to join eventually.

“What I would like to see at the end of the study in a few months is a road map, a road map to give to Americans and to give to international businesses as well, and schools and colleges and everything else, that says these are the types of approaches that are or are not working,” he said.

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“And ideally, when we start to see cases resurge again in the fall — if not before, with variants — we’ll be in a better position to curb those outbreaks, in part through the use of tests like these rapid tests.”

The study, which started a few weeks ago, is set to run for four months, he said.

Mina has been a long-time champion of the tests. He envisions a world in which people could get up in the morning and take a quick paper-strip test before deciding whether to go to work, school, or grandma’s house — or stay home, limiting the virus’s spread.

“Already we’re seeing benefit” in the Citigroup study, he said, noting that “a number” of participants in the study were detected as having COVID-19, even though they had no symptoms, before they went to work.

The US Food and Drug Administration has approved some at-home tests, but Mina has said they need to be simpler and cheaper. Ideally, he said Wednesday, each test would cost $1, with no prescription needed. He said the government should declare that the tests are “public health tools” rather than “medical devices.”

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“The average American should be allowed to know if they’re harboring a virus in their nose without having to go through an expensive doctor visit,” he said. “The fact that we’re preventing the American public from just allowing themselves to know if they’re infected is remarkable to me.”

Dr. Lori Zimmerman, Citi’s corporate medical director, said in a blog post Wednesday that the company was “thrilled to be part of this groundbreaking effort, and we will use the learnings from this initial pilot to inform Citi’s broader plans around at-home testing and our future return to office strategy. Our intent is to make at-home testing widely available to more colleagues in the coming months as an additional measure to enhance workplace health and safety.”

“The science is clear: frequent use of low-cost, simple, rapid tests is highly effective in identifying people who are currently infectious, even if they are asymptomatic,” she said.

Here’s how the testing works: On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, employees involved in the study give themselves a rapid antigen test that’s provided by Innova Medical Group, the largest producer of such tests globally. (The Innova test is already being used as part of Britain’s Operation Moonshot initiative, but has not been authorized in the United States.)

On those three days, employees will swab the front part of their nose and drop it into a cassette. They will be guided through the self-testing process by Bella Health, a health-assessment app created by LivePerson.

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Within 20 minutes, they’ll have their results, which can be read in a similar way to reading a pregnancy test. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, employees are still supposed to report symptoms and provide health information to the app.

Employees who test positive using the antigen test will be directed to get a so-called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test, which is considered the gold standard in diagnostics.

Mina said he’s seeing interest in rapid testing from “more and more countries outside the US,” noting that he had been on a phone call Tuesday with the prime minister of one country and the leadership of another.

But, he said, “I’m American. I live in the United States, and I really want us to benefit as a country ... I would like to see the United States get on board.”

He warned that the coronavirus is “very seasonal” and predicted it will make a return in the fall before petering out in January and February as it appears to have done this year.

“I think it’s very unlikely that we’ll have surges as big as what we have seen in the recent fall and winter, but we will probably have surges,” he said.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.


Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.