Could Travelers to the United States Be Charged $200 for COVID Antigen Tests?

A professor of immunology from New York is calling attention to the price of a COVID-19 testing service for passengers flying through New York City.

Dr. Miriam Merad, director of the Precision Immunology Institute at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, raised the issue on Twitter on June 15 2021, in a round-trip from JFK Airport to Paris.

According to Merad while she was not required to show proof of vaccination before a recent trip, she “saw several families in tears because they were forced to get an antigen test before boarding regardless of vaccine history.”

Each test, she said, cost $200 per person regardless of age. She added:

One family spent their entire vacation budget on these tests. On my way back I saw that in Paris’ airport, antigen tests were free! Antigen tests cost max 15$! [JFK Airport] should forbid test centers that make disgraceful profits out of people misfortune!

The $200 antigen test Merad mentioned does exist; it is part of “XpresCheck,” a program currently offered at JFK’s Terminal 4 (which, like each of that airport’s terminals, operates independently) as well as several other airports around the United States. The test Merad mentioned is listed on the program’s website as a Rapid Molecular NAAT Test:

With this molecular test, a sterile swab is inserted into your nose to collect a specimen. This test is run in our on-site lab to check for the active COVID-19 virus. Results are available while you wait.

The site also mentions that medical insurance — which would ordinarily cover at least some of the cost of a medical exam — is not accepted for the NAAT test, and that results are “hand-delivered within 30-60 minutes.”

Delta’s website does not mention requiring proof of vaccination for travelers. But it does link to the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) requirements for passengers entering or leaving the U.S:

If you plan to travel internationally, you will need to get tested no more than 3 days before you travel by air into the United States (US) and show your negative result to the airline before you board your flight, or be prepared to show documentation of recovery (proof of a recent positive viral test and a letter from your healthcare provider or a public health official stating that you were cleared to travel).

On January 12, 2021, CDC announced an Order requiring all air passengers arriving to the US from a foreign country to get tested no more than 3 days before their flight departs and to present the negative result or documentation of having recovered from COVID-19 to the airline before boarding the flight. Air passengers will also be required to confirm that the information they present is true in the form of an attestation. This Order is effective as of 12:01am EST (5:01am GMT) on January 26, 2021.

In a separate interview Merad did not claim to us that the tests are ineffective but called the pricing “unacceptable” and criticized its potential effects on some travelers.

“What I saw broke my heart,” she said. “There were many families who did not know how to look for information and maybe were not fluent in English.”

She specifically elaborated on the family she described in her post, saying that both parents and each of their four children had to pay the $200 apiece for the test.

While the antigen tests offered for travelers out of Paris might have been different, Merad reiterated that it was free of charge for travelers.

“I just find it unacceptable that there are these types of ad hoc centers,” she said of XpresSpa’s effort. “No one should make this kind of profit off of the pandemic like this. No one.”

Both Charles de Gaulle Airport and Orly Airport in Paris offer polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing for travelers administered by an outside company in Doctolib, which bills itself as a healthcare technology company. But according to the city’s airport authority, same-day tests are not readily available. An English translation of their website reads:

Available only in Paris-Orly airport center, rapid PCR test slots are gradually available and remain limited in number. These rapid tests are only offered to passengers with a flight ticket for a same-day flight departing from Paris-Orly and only for passengers who have made an appointment beforehand. They allow rapid results to be obtained within 90 minutes.

The website also states that regular PCR test results “are generally available within 48 hours,” compared to antigen tests which typically produce results within two hours. While rapid PCR tests cost 20 Euros (approximately $23 U.S. dollars), regular PCR tests are free for travelers with a valid flight ticket.

The U.S. Embassy in France currently recommends avoiding all non-essential travel to France. However, Americans flying to France will not need to quarantine upon arrival in the country if they are fully vaccinated and carry proof of vaccination and either a negative COVID-19 antigen test performed within 48 hours before flying out of the United States or a negative PCR test administered wtihin 72 hours before departure.

We contacted XpresSpa Group, the company promoting the program, seeking comment and more information on the test. The company did not respond. Terminal 4 also failed to respond to a request for comment.