Last week, when many Americans were waiting in long lines and scouring drugstores for COVID-19 tests due to the spread of the omicron variant, some Googlers were casually testing daily from the comfort of their own home. The device they use, a $249 machine that churns out molecular test results in 20 minutes, comes from a San Diego-based company called Cue Health. The company has been painted as providing COVID-19 testing for the elite, but Clint Sever, one of the company’s cofounders and its chief product officer, says that the test was designed with accessibility in mind.
“We have a membership model where for the cost of a gym membership you can start using the product,” Sever says.
Here is the at-home PCR COVID test machine that I believe was given to all Google employees. Why aren’t these being mass-produced?? pic.twitter.com/c4bybB2ZBB
— Josh Kadish (@kadish_josh) January 11, 2022
The Food and Drug Administration granted Cue Health, which was founded in 2010 and went public last year, emergency use authorization for its countertop NAAT (molecular nucleic acid amplification test) back in March 2021. The administration noted that the test was able to identify 96% of positive samples from people with symptoms and 100% of positive samples from those without symptoms, putting it close to the level of accuracy of a PCR test. Early investors in the company include actor Leonardo DiCaprio, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, and political strategist Jim Messina.
Cue’s kit involves two parts: a test cartridge and a reader. The test cartridges are $75 each and the reader is $249. For the bulk of last year, Cue Health sold its test exclusively to employers, most notably Google. It was only two months ago, in November, that the company launched a direct-to-consumer product. Now individuals can buy the test and reader à la carte or as a package through its membership. The lowest tier is $50 per month and gives Cue members 24/7 access to online doctors, 10 test cartridges, and a discount on its reader ($149). Members can purchase additional tests at a discounted rate of $60 per test. There is also a $90-per-month membership that includes testing that meets both U.S. and international standards for travel.
Cue Health’s tests may seem extraordinarily expensive, but pricing for COVID-19 PCR tests is famously murky, with health systems charging insurers anywhere from $150 to $395 per test. Insurers, for now, are mostly covering PCR tests administered in doctors’ offices, but Cue Health’s kits and membership are far beyond what most Americans can afford. The company says that while insurers don’t currently reimburse for its product, Americans can use their flexible health savings accounts and health savings accounts to pay for Cue.
It’s unclear whether there will be an uptick in reimbursement anytime soon. On January 15, the Biden administration began requiring insurers to cover eight at-home tests per person per month (notably, Medicare is not a part of that mandate). But insurers have to cover only $12 per individual test if it’s obtained through an out-of-network provider. That may make it more likely they’ll cover the cost of cheaper home antigen tests than Cue’s more-accurate at-home molecular test unless the company can convince them otherwise.
Sever says this is a false dichotomy, noting “antigen testing doesn’t have the option to have 24-hour virtual-care access to doctors.” He adds that his company is in conversations with insurers, but did not provide further detail.
During the pandemic, the company has worked with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense to provide several million of its tests to schools, hospital settings, correctional facilities, and nursing homes around the country. “We would look for additional opportunities to work with the government to make the test accessible to many more people,” he says. He also believes insurance coverage is key to broadening access. An incentive for insurers, he says, is that Cue’s platform will eventually be able to do much more than COVID-19 testing.
The company is also considering utilizing its device to test for RSV (a common, contagious respiratory virus); flu; strep throat; sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhea; blood-glucose for diabetes; C-reactive protein for inflammation; fertility metrics; and pregnancy. Sever argues that Cue’s $249 reader is worth the onetime purchase. “Right now we think of the readers as an investment in a longer-term future with Cue,” he says. “The value proposition will become more obvious over time. It’s already becoming obvious with antigen testing because we’re seeing a lot of cases that are missed and that’s contributing to community spread.”
For now, the Cue testing kit remains a tool for workers at well-funded institutions like the NBA, Searchlight Pictures, Netflix, ConocoPhillips, and Goldman Sachs, which are sending tests to workers at will. Healthcare companies like Henry Schein, Johnson & Johnson, Memorial Hermann, and even the government-run Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority are also giving their workers access to Cue Health’s quick at-home testing platform. The Mayo Clinic, which vetted Cue’s test, uses the system for its healthcare workers.
Sever concludes, “People shouldn’t have to choose between fast but potentially inaccurate and delayed or slow but accurate.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Cue provides an at home PCR test. While the company does offer a molecular test, it is not PCR, it is NAAT.