Remote Covid test uncertainty for returning citizens

October 5, 2021

Preparing this week for an international trip next month, I unexpectedly uncovered uncertainties concerning the future of the eMed/Navica (Abbott) remotely-proctored Covid test that worked so well and so easily for me from the African wilderness in August. This is the quick-results antigen test that United Airlines, Delta, and American have been touting as approved by the FDA and CDC for U.S. citizens returning home from overseas

To avoid confusion, I should point out that the test I’m describing is for Americans RETURNING from overseas. Here are the CDC Covid test guidelines for U.S. citizens coming home. Test requirements for GOING vary by country.

I first learned about the eMed/Abbott testing process directly from the United website.  Initially skeptical, I was won over by trouble-free, successful use while surrounded by African wildlife.  The simplicity of the test coupled to the eMed proctored process via smartphone relieved me of stress and avoided a great loss of time and money to utilize alternate test means.  After all, the eMed/Navica (Abbott) test kits costs just $30-35 each, which includes remote live proctoring; it can be done anywhere mobile or Wi-Fi service is available; and the test takes just 20-30 minutes.

By contrast, PCR testing requires finding and traveling to a lab or test site in a foreign country three days in advance of flying, and in South Africa costs $120 per person, which must be paid in cash. Some countries, including Italy and Greece, offer quick antigen tests like the eMed/Abbott process through pharmacies. But even those can be expensive. Last week a friend said a pharmacist came to his hotel on a Greek island to administer a simple antigen test and charged €80 ($92.50 at today’s rate).

Here is an Abbott article explaining how the eMed/Navica (Abbott) test kit works and pictures of which package is approved for returning citizens and which is not:

APPROVED FOR TRAVEL USE

NOT APPROVED FOR TRAVEL USE

United explains it here if you pull down the “Return flights back to the U.S.” tab on that page.

Two issues cloud future use: availability of tests and continued FDA approval.  I discovered both conundrums when ordering additional test kits for my November trip, enough for two people.  (Happily for me, my wife is going this time back to the Kruger Park in South Africa.)

Back in June, I ordered the initial two kits from Optum (see here) for use in August—two because eMed advises taking two kits per person in case one fails to yield a result or indicates a positive for Covid (some false positives do occur).  In either case, the backup kit would be used.

But I only needed one kit and thus brought the second one home from South Africa.  I noticed, though, that it had an expiration date of 10-03-21, which I assumed would void its acceptance when the time comes for me to be tested in November. That prompted me to order new Abbott kits from Optum.

Just as before, the test kits arrived quickly (in just three days) on October 4.  When I examined the boxes, however, I was perplexed to see the expiration dates all read 9-19-21.  In other words, the new kits had already expired.  Even more puzzling, the older kit I had bought in June had a newer expiration date (10-03-21) than the ones I just received.

Concerned that Optum had erred in shipping me out-of-date test kits, I phoned the company.  A very nice customer service person explained that FDA had extended the expiration dates of all the Abbott kits by three months, making the ones I just received good until 12-19-21.  Whew, good, I thought, that would cover my wife and me through our November trip to South Africa.

Suspicious that Optum was sending me old stock, I asked why they had not sent test kits with future expiration dates.  There was a long pause before the rep admitted they had no kits with future expiration dates, only kits that were already expired per the original date (now extended).  When would new kits be arriving? I queried.  I explained that I would need up to twelve more test kits for a family-and-friends trip to Italy in December, returning in early January, and then will require another ten or so kits for my next trip to South Africa’s Kruger National Park with four friends in Feb-Mar, 2022.

“We expect them soon,” was all she’d say. She wouldn’t give me a date, not even a speculative one.  I asked her to please kick me up to her manager, which eventually she did.  After a lengthy wait (I was multi-tasking and patient), the fellow who ran the order center came on.  He candidly confessed that stock nationwide was running low “because Abbott is behind in manufacturing” and Optum had no idea when or even if they would be getting more test kits. Hearing that, I was sure his reps had been instructed to not to volunteer such unhappy news, though I didn’t pin him down on it. 

Afterwards, I found this New York Times article which may partially explain the shortage.  I’ve also read that the proliferation of self-testing using the other Abbott test kit—the one depicted above that is not approved for travel—is causing shortages of the test kit that is approved for travel using the unique eMed remote proctoring procedure.

This was fairly alarming news, leading me to call eMed customer service next.  Maybe they would have more specific information about when I could obtain more test kits.  Soon I was connected to an articulate eMed rep in Cali, Columbia who extolled the virtues of his hometown of Medellin.  (Truth be told, I was quite interested.  I’ve been only to Bogota in Columbia, and his vivid descriptions made me yearn to see more of the country.)

When I then explained my enigma—that is, how to get more test kits—the representative confirmed that only Abbott knows when the travel kit version will be available.  “Anyway,” he said, “The big question is whether the test kits will be reapproved by the FDA beyond December for use at all.”

Are you referring to the expiration date extension? I asked, and the answer was no.  As we talked, he had emailed the eMed letter to me (below) confirming the extended okay for the expired tests.  “But,” he went on, “FDA also has to reapprove the kits, regardless of expiration date, for basic Covid test efficacy.  Blanket approval of the kits without respect to expirations is what really runs out at yearend.”

As the implications of what he told me sank in, my mood plummeted.  If the test kits themselves are not approved for use at all beyond December, it will make return testing from Italy in January and return testing from South Africa in March a big hassle, not to mention expensive.  I’ll have to find places that administer Covid tests that meet CDC rules, carve out time to get tested there three days before our flight home, and pay up to $120 per test. Ugh!

I thanked the man, and took note of his advice to “check back around the first of December” with eMed to see if FDA test kit approvals had been extended.  Of course I will do that, but the current bottom line is the eMed/Navica (Abbott) tests will work for us from South Africa in November, but not for anybody going anywhere after December.  Thus a looming problem for easy, convenient, and inexpensive Covid testing to travel home from abroad in 2022.

3 thoughts on “Remote Covid test uncertainty for returning citizens

  1. There is inexpensive antigen testing available at most of the departure airports for international flights from Europe to the USA. Both Rome and Milan have in airport testing for around 20-30 Euro. Just be sure to make appointments with plenty of time before your flight check in as they can get busy.

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  2. Abbott like most large companies practices Supply Chain Management in the only affordable way. That is by engaging and contracting (many lawyers) each supplier. Then leaving those suppliers to do the same with theirs and so on down the line. Each has its own logistics and not one communicates real time with any other. This is what they call “the supply chain”. Lots of suppliers, but hardly chained. Rather just linked fortuitously by extensive legal agreements, managed by lawyers because the operating staff have very limited ability to change the supply process without a company lawyer at their side. That’s why these tests are in short supply with no foreseeable resolution. Every single component of the test including the packaging, graphics, instructions are subject to an independent supplier network. And none of them are linked to the volume or deliveries of any of their or their dependent components. This is why the 2019 supply situation on so many products (autos to paint) is not going to be resolved until 2023 at the earliest.

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