COVID-19 Test Differences - PCR, Rapid, and Antibody

Jacqueline Slobin
Jacqueline Slobin23 Apr 2024
Reviewed and Fact Checked ✔️

There are currently two main tests for the COVID-19 virus in the United States: diagnostic and antibody tests. 

  • Diagnostic tests detect an active infection with COVID-19 and are either done through a nasal swab or a saliva sample. The two types of diagnostic tests are molecular PCR tests and antigen (rapid) tests.
  • Antibody tests are done through a blood test to detect a previous infection with COVID-19.

The Differences Between a COVID-19 PCR & Antibody Test 

Both PCR and antigen tests are diagnostic tests; therefore, you should get either of these tests if you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. According to Harvard Health Publishing, there are a few key differences between the PCR and antigen (rapid) tests. We outline important differences in the table below:

PCR TestAntigen (rapid) Test
Nasal/throat swab or saliva sampleNasal swab
Results can take up to a week Results in less than one hour
Lower chance of false-negative resultsHigher chance of false-negative results 
Works by directly detecting the presence of the virus genetic material (RNA)Directly detects molecules on the surface of the virus

Antigen tests produce results faster, but have a higher chance of yielding false-negative results. Your doctor may want to get a PCR test to confirm a negative test result from an antigen test. 

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Jacqueline Slobin

Jacqueline graduated from the University of Virginia in 2021 with a B.A. in Global Public Health and is a current M.D. candidate at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Jacqueline has been working for Mira since April 2020 and is passionate about the intersection of public health and medical care.

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