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Pittsburgh-based wellness retailer now selling at-home coronavirus tests

But some experts are concerned about direct-to-consumer options

  • By Sarah Boden/WESA
A man wearing a face mask bicycles along Broad Street, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in Philadelphia.

 Matt Slocum / AP Photo

A man wearing a face mask bicycles along Broad Street, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in Philadelphia.

(Pittsburgh) — GNC is allowing people to skip the line for coronavirus testing — the Pittsburgh-based wellness retailer now sells an over-the-counter test on its website for $120.

While there are cheaper at-home tests that produce results in just 15 minutes, GNC’s is a PCR test, which is the most accurate type of test. To submit a sample, a customer fills a tube with saliva and then sends it via priority mail to a lab, which GNC said will deliver results within four days.

GNC is providing this product in collaboration with 1health, a testing service company. GNC Chief Brand Officer Ryan Ostrum said he sees the test being most useful for people who are about to travel, or have had recent exposure to the virus.

“Just to have one available to say, ‘Hey, do I need to quarantine?’ [or] understand, ‘do I have COVID at this moment?’” he said.

A dearth of testing has been an issue since the beginning of the pandemic. Frequently people go to emergency rooms to get tested, or have waited more than a week for results due to bottlenecks in processing.

But direct-to-consumer testing raises concerns for some, because it takes place outside of a medical setting.

“I think that people need to understand that although this is a very accurate test, it comes with certain limitations, and I think this might not always be clear to consumers” said Louiza Kalokairinou, a law and bioethics researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, where she specializes in direct-to-consumer products.

Though GNC said the test can produce a false negative, its online information does not include an explanation of how long a person should wait to get a test after an exposure. Recommendations vary, but generally a person shouldn’t take a coronavirus test until at least five days after an exposure.

But this easy access might make it more likely for someone to submit a sample outside the appropriate diagnostic window.

“I wonder if the pricing and advertising of these products really preys on someone’s anxiety … and they get people to pay a price that seems reasonable at the time,” said Dr. Theo Wilson, an assistant professor of clinical medical and molecular genetics at Indiana University School of Medicine.

“It’s so easy for us to cast shade on these individual corporations, but really the big issue is that we don’t have a federal, national testing option,” said Wilson. “There is no single, centralized way to just say ‘I need this test’ and include your primary care doctor.”

Another concern, said Kalokairinou, is that because GNC does not accept insurance, only people of means have the ability to purchase these tests

“We have also seen that COVID … impacts disproportionately people of color, and more marginalized communities. So I do think that creating a two-tiered access to testing is a real concern,” she said.

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