This test says it can detect the omicron variant – and it can be used for travel

Dec 16, 2021

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Travelers these days have plenty of COVID-19 testing options, but getting a test for travel now is more important than ever. Between the United States shortening the testing window to fly into the country from abroad to documented testing shortages to the holidays fast approaching, having more options is always a good thing.

But one company is carving out room in the COVID-19 testing world – and it’s making a bold claim that it can discover the new omicron variant. Here’s what you need to know about Cue Health, the latest player in the COVID-19 testing space.

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What you need to know about Cue Health

Cue Health is a direct-to-consumer service that claims to offer 97.8% accurate results – in just 20 minutes. It’s authorized by the FDA for at-home use and can be used for travel purposes. The CDC earlier this year expanded the testing program for international travel to the U.S., allowing airlines to accept at-home instant tests that include remote supervision.

The company also claims that it can detect the omicron coronavirus variant.

The variant, discovered in November, may be more contagious than others and contains several spike protein mutations that may make it less responsive to COVID-19 vaccines, so travelers planning to see family members or hop on a plane this holiday season might want to go with this option for the peace of mind. The company says that 99.2% of the published omicron sequences – what scientists use to identify coronavirus mutations – were a “perfect match” to the primers used in Cue’s COVID-19 test.

“Our molecular test is backed by the science and technology necessary to detect emerging variants, including omicron, enabling individuals and healthcare practitioners to make better-informed decisions,” Ayub Khattak, Cue’s CEO, said in a statement.

How much does it cost?

Cue Health offers two options for travelers: the Cue+ Essential membership, which starts at $49.99 (a more expensive option costs $89.99 per month,) or a one-time purchase with a pack of three or 10 tests starting at $225.

The Cue+ Complete membership offers 24-hour in-app access to doctors, a 10- or 20-pack of COVID-19 tests suitable for travel purposes, a discounted “Cue Reader,” a 20% discount off additional COVID-19 tests and certified test results that you can use for travel. Most importantly, $89.99 membership also offers proctored testing (which the CDC requires) to meet travel entry requirements to fly into the United States.

The $225 option may undoubtedly raise some eyebrows, given how affordable at-home testing has gotten. It includes a Cue Health Monitoring System, a three-pack or 10-pack (the 10-pack option is a whopping $713) and 5% off a 10-pack of tests. Another option, which includes a “Cue Reader” — a portable device that automatically processes test results — costs $474. The company says its tests have a nine-month shelf life.

Which option should you get?

The $49 or $89 option really is a no-brainer compared to the more expensive a-la-carte options, which don’t even include access to doctors or test results that can be used for travel. Even with the discounted Cue Reader (a $149 fee), it’s a much better choice than the more expensive option. If you’re getting COVID-19 tests solely for health reasons, the a la carte option could be a decent choice, but there are other options, like Binax’s non-proctored test packs, which are significantly cheaper.

How is this different from other at-home COVID-19 tests?

Many COVID-19 at-home testing providers provide quick turnaround times, primarily to meet the demand of busy travelers needing a last-minute test before heading on vacation or seeing family. As these tests are primarily used for travelers flying back to the U.S., having access to a test proctor and digital results isn’t that uncommon — but is still a solid feature.

What’s interesting – and unique – about this service is the membership option, which other services like Abbott and Ellume don’t provide. If you’re a frequent traveler, it may be more beneficial to take advantage of the $49 membership fee over the more expensive a-la-carte option.

What other at-home COVID-19 testing options are out there?

As I’ve written before, several companies sell at-home or mail-in COVID-19 tests. However, only proctored (supervised) tests approved by the CDC can be used to fly into the U.S. So make sure you’re picking up a proctored test before hitting the road if you don’t want to run into an unwelcome surprise during your trip.

Several at-home testing options vary in price, turnaround time and availability. Here are some other testing options:

  • Abbott BinaxNow COVID-19 Home Test: Two versions, one approved for travel and one that isn’t. Cost: Starts at $50 for the CDC-approved test, depending on the distributor.
  • Ellume COVID-19 Home Test The CDC approves this test for travel purposes. However, it’s not currently available online. Instead, you must find one in a local store and then pay separately for a virtual consultation. Note that some of these kits were recalled by the FDA, so check the box and make sure the kit you’re buying isn’t an affected one.

Bottom line

More COVID-19 testing options is always a good thing – and if Cue’s claims that it can detect the omicron variant are valid – it will definitely be a game-changer as travelers navigate the new variant during the holiday season and New Year. If travel is your purpose, I’d suggest going with the Cue+ membership (or the slightly more expensive Cue+ Complete) solely for peace of mind.

Featured photo courtesy of Cue Health

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