The Performance of Lateral Flow Tests in the Age of the Omicron Variant: A Rapid Systematic Review

A study published in the journal ‘Life’ conducted a systematic review to evaluate the performance of lateral flow (rapid antigen) tests in detecting the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2.

Here’s a detailed:

Background of the Study:

  • The rapid detection and isolation of COVID-19 cases are critical for controlling the spread of the virus. Lateral flow tests, a key tool for quick diagnosis, have faced challenges with the emergence of the Omicron variants (BA.1, BA.2, BA.4/5) due to their high transmissibility and significant mutations in spike and nucleocapsid proteins​​​​.

Methodology and Findings:

  • The study reviewed ten existing studies (six published and four preprints) to assess the efficacy of lateral flow tests against the Omicron variant compared to the Delta variant. These studies used various sample types, including in vitro studies, animal models, and human nasal or nasopharyngeal swabs​​.
  • The review found a general decline in the effectiveness of lateral flow tests in detecting the Omicron variant, especially during the initial days after symptom onset. This decline was more evident in older test kits, such as Standard Q and Panbio, although some, like BinaxNOWTM, showed comparable sensitivity for Omicron as for previous variants​​.
  • The study highlighted that frequent testing (every 2-3 days) is essential for meaningful impact on transmission dynamics, considering the shorter incubation and serial intervals of the Omicron variant compared to Delta. It also noted the limitations of lateral flow tests, particularly for samples with higher cycle threshold (Ct) values and in asymptomatic individuals, due to lower viral loads​​.

Implications and Limitations:

  • Lateral flow tests remain a crucial tool in the pandemic response, especially for quick testing. However, their decreased sensitivity for Omicron necessitates a cautious approach, where a negative result should not be considered confirmatory. The study urges further investigation into these findings to adapt public health policies and testing strategies appropriately​​.
  • The review also acknowledges limitations such as the challenges in real-time investigation of a novel variant, small sample sizes in the studies reviewed, and the need for further validation studies​​.


This systematic review underscores the evolving challenges in COVID-19 diagnostics and highlights the need for continuous monitoring and adaptation of testing strategies in response to new variants like Omicron. It emphasizes the importance of not solely relying on lateral flow tests for definitive COVID-19 diagnosis, particularly in the context of emerging variants and their distinct characteristics.

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