NIH 'Shark Tank' on track to produce quick, inexpensive COVID-19 tests by fall: Senators

Lamar Alexander and Roy Blunt, Opinion contributors
·4 min read

Imagine being able to take a test to find out whether you have COVID-19 and get the result in minutes, not days. Imagine also that the test costs $1 or $5 so that you could take tests as often as you want. Think how much easier that would make it for doctors to treat patients and for public health departments to track down and isolate those exposed to the virus. You could be sure you and your child are healthy before she goes to school or you head out to work or to dinner or to visit parents or grandparents you haven’t seen in months.

Easier to use inexpensive tests with quick results are the surest path back toward normal until we have a vaccine — and thanks to a National Institutes of Health project called the “Shark Tank,” scientists are transforming COVID-19 diagnostic testing.

The Shark Tank, which we proposed and Congress created in April, is a $2.5 billion initiative in which the NIH, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and private industry are working together overtime to develop new ways to produce tens of millions of COVID-19 diagnostic tests that are capable of providing quick, inexpensive results.

A race to fast and cheap testing

Today, the United States can conduct approximately 800,000 COVID-19 tests a day, but the current tests are complex. And there is so much demand that people wait in lines for hours to get tests and may wait days, or even weeks, for results.

This program, officially called the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics, is pulling out all the stops to fast-track new technologies designed to produce tens of millions of diagnostic tests that can deliver results in minutes or hours, instead of waiting several days for a laboratory to return a result. RADx is doing in months what used to take three to seven years.

COVID-19 vaccination being prepared on Aug. 7, 2020, in a trial in  Hollywood, Florida.
COVID-19 vaccination being prepared on Aug. 7, 2020, in a trial in Hollywood, Florida.

Since April, scientists have been searching for a “great white shark,” or maybe a few “great white sharks,” that can help contain the disease and give Americans confidence to go back to school, back to work and out to eat. Here is an update on where things stand:

The NIH recently announced that it is investing $248.7 million in seven companies to support a range of new diagnostic tests. These funds will support scaling up and manufacturing these much needed tests to get them to the marketplace this fall.

Four of the companies’ concepts will boost lab-based testing, increasing the number of tests that can be processed while speeding up the time it takes to receive results. Three of the technologies selected are rapid, point-of-care tests that can be administered at workplaces, schools, colleges, child care centers and nursing homes without being sent off to a lab.

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For example, one company’s test uses a hand-held device and can detect the virus that causes COVID-19 within 30 minutes. Another company’s test will produce electronic results within 15 minutes. Another company is scaling up the ability to process tens of thousands of tests at once.

Millions more tests to contain COVID-19

Since this bold initiative began April 29, scientists and engineers have submitted more than 650 ideas to NIH for consideration. On a rolling basis, their applications are evaluated by experts from government, colleges and universities, and industry. Of the applications received so far, NIH has immersed the 31 best in the “shark tank,” entering them into Phase 1 where they undergo an intensive period of technology validation that can last up to six weeks. More than 20 of these concepts are expected to be considered for Phase 2 during the next few weeks.

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“If all goes well, RADx aims to support innovative technologies that will make millions more rapid SARS-CoV-2 tests available to Americans by late summer or fall," the NIH director, Dr. Francis Collins, said in April. "Such widespread testing, which will facilitate the speedy identification and quarantine of infected individuals and their contacts, will likely be a critical component of making it possible for Americans to get safely back into public spaces, including returning to work and school.”

While the nation waits for the development of safe and effective vaccines and additional treatments, diagnostic testing remains critical to the COVID-19 response. The importance of the Shark Tank initiative is clear: We need tens of millions more inexpensive and reliable tests with quick results to contain the virus and help Americans have the confidence to go safely back to school, back to work and out to eat.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is chairman of the Senate’s health committee. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is chairman of the Senate’s health appropriations subcommittee. Follow them on Twitter: @SenAlexander and @RoyBlunt

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19: Cheap, quick tests could be ready for marketing this fall