The Evolution of HIV Testing: From Standard Tests to Rapid Tests

HIV testing is a crucial step in the prevention and treatment of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. HIV testing can help people know their status and protect themselves and others from the transmission. However, HIV testing has not always been as easy and accessible as it is today. In this blog post, we will explore the history of HIV testing and how it went from standard traditional tests to rapid tests in 2023.

The Evolution of HIV Testing: From Standard Tests to Rapid Tests

The beginning of HIV testing

The first cases of AIDS were reported in 1981 [1], but it took until 1984 for scientists to identify the cause of the disease: the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This discovery paved the way for the development of the first test for HIV, which was approved for use in March 1985 [2]. This test, known as an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), uses blood samples to detect antibodies to HIV, which are produced by the immune system in response to the virus. However, this test had some limitations: it had a high rate of false positive results [2].

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, new types of HIV tests were developed to overcome some of these challenges. One of these was the nucleic acid test (NAT), which looked for the actual virus in the blood, rather than antibodies [3]. This test could detect HIV sooner than antibody tests, but it was complex and required specialized laboratory equipment, so it was impractical for routine use [3].

Second and third-generation HIV tests were developed in the late 1980s. They were more accurate and faster than the previous generation tests. They could detect antibodies for both HIV-1 and HIV-2, two types of HIV that are prevalent in different regions, and they could also identify antibodies within four to six weeks after infection, instead of several months [4].

The transition to rapid tests

The breakthrough in HIV testing came in the mid-1990s, with the introduction of rapid tests. Rapid tests are tests that can provide results in 30 minutes or less, usually using blood from a finger stick. Rapid tests are based on the same principle as ELISA, but use a simpler and faster method to detect antibodies to HIV.

The Evolution of HIV Testing: From Standard Tests to Rapid Tests

The advancement of HIV testing

In 2023, there are two types of rapid tests available in Canada: the point-of-care (POC) test and the self-test. The POC test is a test that is performed by a health care provider at a clinic, using serum, plasma, or blood samples. The result is available at the time of testing. The self-test is a test that is purchased by the user through a pharmacy, and performed at home, using fingerstick blood. The result is usually available within 30 minutes.

HIV testing has come a long way since the first test was approved in 1985. Today, there are various options for HIV testing, ranging from standard laboratory tests to rapid tests that can be done at home. Regardless of the type of test, HIV testing is a vital tool for preventing and treating HIV, and everyone should get tested at least once in their lifetime, and more often if they are living in a high-risk area.


[1] The HIV/AIDS Epidemic: The First 10 Years. (1991, June 7). CDC. 

[2] Fabry, M. (2016, June 27). This is how the HIV test was invented. Time. 

[3] HIV testing in the United States | KFF. (2022, June 24). KFF. 

[4] Kramer, S., & Kramer, S. (2019, July 23). A brief history of HIV testing. Metrosource. 


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