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The unlikely place to find COVID-19 tests

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

If you've tried to purchase an at-home COVID-19 test at a national pharmacy chain in the past few weeks you've likely struck out. It won't get any easier anytime soon, either, as schools welcome students back for in-person learning while the Omicron variant continues to surge — fueling more demand for regular testing and further straining test supplies.

But some savvy consumers have discovered that at-home COVID-19 tests are available from an unlikely source: Telemedicine company Ro. At its inception in 2017, under the name Roman, the company billed itself as a men's health care company providing discreet treatments for conditions including erectile dysfunction and hair loss.

Visit Ro's website and you can purchase up to 12 packs of Intrivo Diagnostics' On/Go COVID-19 rapid antigen self test kit per transaction. The only catch is that at $30 for two tests, the kits are slightly more expensive than currently unavailable varieties, like Abbott Labs' BinaxNow antigen self-test kit, which when in stock, retails for $23.99 at CVS Pharmacy. 

A screenshot of Ro's COVID-19 test kit page indicates that the On/Go kits are currently in stock.  Ro

Driven by Omicron, the rate of COVID-19 cases has swelled across the U.S., with positive case numbers reaching their peak since the beginning of the pandemic. The seven-day average of new cases has soared to nearly 340,000 from 187,000 a week ago, according to data from TD Securities. 

Consequently, 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 all sold out on Walgreens' website, too.

A screenshot from CVS Pharmacy's website indicating rapid at-home COVID-19 tests are sold out online.

Product availability tracker, which does the digital legwork for consumers, also indicates that nearly every variety of at-home COVID-19 test is sold out across the expansive online retail landscape. 

COVID-19 tests are currently among the hottest and hardest to secure items, right alongside video game consoles like Microsoft's Xbox, Sony's Playstation and Nintendo's Switch, according to product trackers.

"I've been getting requests since the New Year started," Jonathan Allen, a product tracking expert better known by his social media handle "SupplyNinja," told CBS MoneyWatch. "Seems that once Christmas was out of the way, people began focusing back on today's current event — this virus."

The popular coupon app Honey lists four types of at-home COVID tests among the items most watched by users, including tests manufactured by Binax, QuickVue, Homeflex and InteliSwab. Other tracking apps, including ZooLert and Brickseek, also have started monitoring the availability of test kits.

COVID tests on Honey screenshot
A screenshot of Ro's COVID-19 test kit page indicates that the On/Go kits are currently in stock.  Ro

Ro co-founder and CEO Zachariah Reitano said the On/Go test kit was among the company's top three most in-demand products and services over the holiday period. Unlike other health care companies, including pharmacies, it is confident in its ability to keep the tests in stock and serve consumers through peak periods. 

"Our patients kept asking for tests and we partnered with the makers of the On/Go test to provide them," Reitano said. "They have been investing tremendously in manufacturing capacity even as cases have ebbed and flowed in the potential case where there was a far more contagious variant that spread quickly."

Growth in distribution centers

Ro ended the year with 10 distribution centers across the U.S., up from just three earlier in the year, allowing for speedy delivery of the time-sensitive tests.

"We had pharmacists and pharmacy technicians come in over the holidays and work 12-18 hour days to make sure our patients got their COVID tests on time," Reitano added. He doesn't expect to run out of test kits anytime soon, either. 

While shipping individual test kits is costly for Ro, which pays for expedited shipping and only profits when it ships tests in bulk, Reitano said the cost is worth it "to make sure people get it as soon as possible."

In the meantime, the test kits have helped Ro acquire plenty of new customers who Reitano hopes will look to the company to fulfill their health needs, too. Ro now has a suite of offerings that extend beyond men's sexual wellness to include fertility services, mental health care and at-home diagnostic testing for men and women. 

"We started offering the tests to our members and other people signed up," Reitano said. "Hopefully as we add new products and services they'll look to us and know they're getting affordable prices and we're not looking to take advantage of any moment."

—Irina Ivanova contributed to this report.

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