USC researchers are collaborating with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health on a project to examine the use of coronavirus rapid antigen tests among first responders and school-aged children.

The pilot study aims to determine the best methods for using the inexpensive tests with the hope of supporting reopening efforts. Rapid tests have the potential to quickly alert people who are contagious and need to isolate, thereby stopping the chain of transmission. Los Angeles is one of the first metropolitan areas in the country to launch a large-scale pilot study of rapid tests in both symptomatic and asymptomatic participants.

“Rapid antigen tests have a lot of promise in our path to reopen schools and businesses because they are cheaper and provide quicker results than PCR tests. But there is a lot we don’t know,” said Neeraj Sood, PhD, director of the COVID Initiative at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics and USC lead on the collaboration.

“We want to understand whether rapid antigen tests identify infectious and asymptomatic individuals, whether they can be self-administered and how they can be used for screening at schools and workplaces,” said Sood, who is also a professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy. “We are especially excited to be piloting a new rapid antigen test and mobile app that uses computer vision technology to automatically interpret results.”

Sood’s previous COVID-19 research includes an antibody study that found that most L.A. County residents remained vulnerable to the disease. USC’s Office of Research has dedicated $1.7 million to fund more than two dozen research projects aimed at advancing our knowledge of the novel coronavirus.


Rapid antigen testing starts with first responders, then schoolchildren

Rapid antigen tests are cheaper and provide quicker results than PCR tests, which will be important for re-opening schools and businesses, but more research is needed, Sood said. (Photo/Gus Ruelas)

The first phase of the new project kicked off last week with firefighters at the Los Angeles Fire Department receiving three COVID-19 tests at city testing sites: a self-administered rapid antigen test, a lab-based PCR test and an antibody test to identify prior infection. The project, which aims to enroll up to 1,000 first responders, will provide insight into how each test performs and how to best administer these tests to essential frontline workers.

PCR tests cost upwards of $100 apiece and can take days to deliver results. Rapid antigen tests, which utilize a paper strip, can cost as little as $5 and deliver results within 15 minutes.

“Rapid tests are cheaper, faster and more accessible — and they are a potential game changer in our ability to respond to COVID-19, reopen our schools and get our economy back on track,” Garcetti said. “Los Angeles never shies away from a challenge, and we are tapping into our trademark creativity, our innovative spirit and our strong partners with USC and the county to advance groundbreaking research, prevent the spread of this virus and save lives.”

The second phase of the project seeks to assess the feasibility, acceptability and accuracy of repeat rapid antigen testing for screening in school-aged children. Sood will co-lead this project with Jennifer Unger, PhD, a professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, to determine the best way to test large numbers of students in school settings.

Both phases will rely on volunteers as study participants. School administrators interested in participating in this study can email for more information.


Next steps: how to deploy rapid testing, how often to test

Los Angeles City Fire Captain Leon Dunn takes a rapid antigen test as Mayor Eric Garcetti observes. (Photo/Gus Ruelas)

“This partnership with USC and the City of Los Angeles is an enormous opportunity to implement cutting-edge research that has the potential to transform the way we approach the pandemic and how we can slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Barbara Ferrer, director of the county’s Department of Public Health. “Identifying strategies to protect our essential workers and get children back to school safely are among our highest priorities.”

Researchers are looking at the pilot studies, focus groups and surveys as avenues to tackle a number of challenges, such as establishing the best way to deploy rapid testing, determining how often a person should repeat testing and identifying the best way to conduct large-scale testing and develop an effective implementation strategy.

The project is a public-private partnership led by the University of Southern California, the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the L.A. County Department of Public Health. Other collaborators include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Gauss, a developer of computer vision applications for health care that provided the rapid antigen tests and computer vision app. Cedars-Sinai provided the PCR tests, antibody tests and lab analysis. Support for the project was provided by the Office of the Mayor, USC, the Los Angeles Fire Department, The Rockefeller Foundation, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other individual donors.

“I am grateful for this collaboration between the county and the city, and our partners at USC for these efforts to vastly expand and enhance testing capacity,” said Supervisor Kathryn Barger, chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. “We continue to work together to keep our communities safe and healthy while gradually moving forward with additional reopenings and in-person learning for our children and youth.”

— Leigh Hopper