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Social media users rack up views by wasting COVID-19 tests

U.S. struggles to meet COVID testing demand
U.S. struggles to meet COVID testing demand 06:38

Some Americans seem determined to throw cold water on the merits of COVID-19 testing — literally. In the latest sign of ongoing public resistance to what is by now conventional medical wisdom about how to detect the disease, social media users are deliberately misusing scarce at-home COVID-19 tests to produce false positive results by running the devices under tap water. 

Some individuals are falsely suggesting to their followers that the faulty results indicate their tap water contains the virus. This is incorrect, according to test kit manufacturers. At-home antigen tests contain instructions for use and explicitly state that results are invalid if users do not adhere to the directions. Sprinkling a nasal swab or specimen collector with water is never recommended, test kit manufacturers say.

In one case, TikTok user @hippee0 has amassed 14.3 million views for a more than two-minute long video in which a person holds a COVID-19 test under running water and includes text that reads, "Tap water tests positive for covid." The video was "liked" nearly 250,000 times and prompted 17,000 comments. 

"And that's why there's a shortage of these tests," one user commented.

Dozens of similar videos are circulating on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. But the tests aren't faulty — they are just being misused, according to experts. The Food and Drug Administration has deemed positive results from antigen tests highly accurate when used properly. 

"Most importantly, these tests were designed to be used according to the directions, period," Mara Aspinall, a professor of biomedical diagnostics at Arizona State University, told CBS MoneyWatch. 

In an interview with CBS Mornings, Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and chief science officer at eMed, said that rapid COVID-19 tests are an important tool for people to determine if they might be infectious and, more broadly, to safeguard public health. 

Epidemiologist Dr. Michael Mina on CDC COVID isolation guidelines and at-home tests 05:27

Over-the-counter antigen tests from manufacturers including Abbott Labs and Quidel contain a diluent that users are instructed to mix with a sample collected from a nasal swab. If too little or too much diluent, or reagent, is used, even that can deliver a false negative or positive result. 

Aspinall said COVID-19 tests could in theory eventually work using a saliva sample, but aren't currently designed to do so.  

"You will get inaccurate results when the tests are not used how they are designed," she said. "Medical testing is a very sophisticated science, and we are only just moving into these home tests. There is a lot of sophistication and process that goes into doing them at the lab, and you have to respect that when you're doing them at home." 

Demand for at-home COVID-19 tests is soaring as the number of cases in the U.S., fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant, tops 1 million per day — an all-time high during the pandemic. Public health data show that Omicron now makes up 95% of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S.  

Every variety of at-home COVID-19 test on CVS Pharmacy's website is currently sold out. Abbott's BinaxNow kit, Quidel's QuickVue at-home test kit, Orasure's Inteliswab rapid test kit and FlowFlex's version are also out of stock on Walgreens' website.

Aspinall advised against ignoring manufacturers' instructions when administering a rapid COVID-19 test. "Now is not the time for home experiments, but I do hope companies are working on tests that are easier to use," Aspinall said. 

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