ART or PCR COVID Tests: How They Differ And Their Use Cases

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Since the COVID-19 pandemic continues to persist even today, tests continue to be the best way to identify if one has the virus or not. When your doctor advises that you should get tested, or if you want to undergo testing yourself, you will generally have two options: Antigen Rapid Test (ART) and Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Test.

Despite achieving the same goal, determining the presence of the COVID-19 virus, they each have their differences and use cases. Below, we look at how they differ and which is better for specific situations.

Antigen Rapid Test (ART)

What is ART?

As its name suggests, ART is a quick COVID-19 test that produces results within 15-30 minutes. It works by detecting viral proteins in the secretions lining the mucosal surface.

ART tests are generally conducted by your doctor at events as a point-of-care test (POCT) or self-administered via ART self-test kits.

The testing process

An ART test involves extracting a specimen sample from the anterior nasal space of both nostrils via a swab stick provided in the kit. Afterwards, these samples are inserted into an extraction tube with a buffer solution that drips them onto a test cassette.

After the cassette is incubated for 15 minutes, the results can be determined.

How it differs from PCR

Due to its quick turnaround time, ART is the best pre-event testing (PET) option, allowing people to get their results within half an hour after getting swabbed and continuing with their day.

Another key difference is the comfort of the swabbing process. Although both ART and PCR can take samples from the nasal space, the former will be more comfortable on average since the insertion depth is only 2cm compared to the latter’s 2.5cm, a slight yet noticeable difference for those that have undergone both.

ART tests are significantly cheaper than PCR tests when it comes to cost. This is because only trained healthcare professionals can do PCR tests, and the specimens must be sent to a laboratory for testing.

Although ART tests are highly accurate, they may fail to identify an infection if the virus levels are too low to detect properly. As such, in certain circumstances, a PCR test may be necessary.

Use of test

Because its results turn up rather quickly, the ART test is great for personal routine checks and screening for pre-event testing. If you are under the Home Recovery Programme, it’s better to use this test regularly.

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)

What is PCR?

The PCR test detects a COVID infection by amplifying the virus’s genetic code. Currently, the PCR test is touted as the gold standard among COVID-19 tests, making it the best benchmark for comparison with other tests.

The PCR test is also used for patients experiencing acute respiratory infection (ARI) symptoms as a final confirmation when ART tests return a positive.

The testing process

Taking a swab sample from the mucosal surfaces can be done via the back of the nose, the back of the throat, and the middle turbinate. The former two is an NP (nasopharyngeal) swab, the latter an (OPMT) oropharyngeal-middle turbinate swab.

When conducting an NP swab, a trained healthcare professional will use a swab stick to reach the back of the nose or nasopharynx through both nostrils to collect the secretions.

For the OPMT swab, individuals will be required to open their mouth wide to collect secretions from the back of their throat and middle turbinate of their nose. Once done, the samples will be sent to a laboratory for testing, with results following in about 24 hours.

How it differs from ART

Compared to the ART test, the PCR test is the more sensitive and most accurate method to detect the virus even before symptoms show.

However, due to this increased potency, it is more costly than ART, and the results will take some time to arrive, as mentioned previously.

Due to its effectiveness, false-positive results may occur even after the person ceases to be infectious for several weeks. They are continually shedding the virus through their mucosa, which gets picked up on by the virus. In other words, it cannot differentiate between old and acute infections.

Use of test

The PCR test is best used for symptomatic individuals, Stay-Home Notice (SHN) exit swabs, Quarantine Order (QO) entry and exit swabs, and rostered routine testing.


It’s essential to follow the doctor’s orders, especially if they suggest taking a COVID test to guarantee our safety and those around us. It is recommended to take the initiative and self-test using ART kits for routine checks and detect possible infections quickly.

If you need a MOH-approved COVID-19 test done remotely, the MyCLNQ app offers a simple and convenient way to achieve this. In just a few clicks in the app, you can get access to virtual ART tests and any other medical services you need, such as online medical consultations and private ambulances in Singapore, without stepping outside the house.

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