What is a PCR test and how does it work?

PCR test

If you were to wake up tomorrow with shortness of breath, a new continuous cough and a fever, you would probably start wondering how you could get tested for coronavirus.

At the moment, there are two types of coronavirus tests that are widely available in the UK – an antibody test or a PCR test. This article will focus on PCR testing. We wrote about antibody testing here.

What does PCR testing entail?

PCR testing is sometimes referred to as a ‘swab test’. A nurse or healthcare worker will use a large cotton swab to take a sample from the back of your throat, which then has to be sent back to a laboratory for testing. The actual sample collection takes less than a minute. It’s quick and safe, but can be uncomfortable. How long it takes to get the results back depends on the lab doing the test – typically 1-2 days.

How does the test work?

PCR testing works by detecting specific genetic material within the virus. In the laboratory, scientists can extract the nucleic acid from the virus, which contains the virus’s genome. After that they can amplify certain parts of the genome using a technique called reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (rt PCR). This gives the scientists a large sample which they can compare to the new coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2. The process works in a similar way to relationship DNA testing, which is why some DNA companies have started to offer coronavirus testing.

How do you get tested?

The advice is constantly changing as the pandemic progresses. In the UK, the NHS website contains up-to-date information about who qualifies for a test and how & where to get tested. You can find out more here

Can I buy my own test to do at home?

PCR testing for coronavirus is usually performed by a healthcare worker and testing is normally done at a testing centre or in places like airports.

If you wish to buy a testing kit for private use, there are some companies that sell them – such as this PCR test for the workplace which allows employers to routinely test their staff. You should only ever buy a testing kit from an ISO accredited company.

More information

If you suspect that you or a family member has coronavirus you should follow the government’s advice at https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus or call 111.

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