Over the past three weeks, the Covid-19 pandemic has wiped out the stock market’s gains in the past three years, a sign that the economy is in panic mode as cities across the country rush into shelter-in-place in a desperate effort to contain the virus’ transmission.
Behind the anxiety, however, isn’t the coronavirus itself, but the American health system’s severe shortage of testing capacity. According to The New York Times, the U.S. currently has the lowest Covid-19 test rate among countries hit by the virus, making it impossible for public health officials to understand how bad the pandemic situation really is and how many virus-carrying, possibly asymptotic, patients are left out in the open air.
In South Korea, where the coronavirus outbreak was even worse than the U.S. just a few weeks ago, daily new cases quickly came under control— without locking down entire cities—thanks to “the most expansive and well-organized testing program in the world,” per Science Magazine, “combined with extensive efforts to isolate infected people and trace and quarantine their contacts.”
“What you don’t want to do is bring someone with Covid-19 into a geriatric ward,” Paul Yager, a professor in the department of bioengineering at the University of Washington, told Verge this week. “You want to separate them. You want something that would give you a result in 10 to 20 minutes.”
The good news is, a number of public and commercial efforts are already underway to develop new, fast test technology that could hopefully turn the tide of the pandemic soon.
UC San Diego Lab Project
Researchers at University of California, San Diego are testing a Covid-19 diagnosis system designed by Fluxergy, an Irvine, Calif.-based lab, that can be used to perform tests on a patient’s bedside and return results within an hour.
“The best thing it could do is triage patients pretty quickly,” Davey Smith, a UCSD professor of medicine and doctor leading the research team, told CBS this week. “In someplace like a nursing home or hospital, if you see someone who may be transmitting the disease, do you have to quarantine all those people he interacted with? Maybe, but you can test that person and quickly know.”
Currently, UCSD labs can get test results back in around eight hours. It takes county health officials a day or longer to get test results from authorized labs in the region.
Bill Gates-Funded At-Home Test Kits
A project born out of the University of Washington-based Seattle Flu Study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is developing an at-home Covid-19 test kit that will soon be available to residents in the Washington state, one of the hardest-hit states in the U.S.
The Gates Foundation said the goal is to eventually be able to process thousands of tests a day. “This has enormous potential to turn the tide of the epidemic,” Scott Dowell, leader of the coronavirus response team at the Gates Foundation, said earlier this month.
Mammoth Biosciences’ DETECTR
Mammoth Biosciences, a startup spun off of the lab of Jennifer Doudna, one of the inventors of CRISPR, is developing a diagnostic system called DETECTR that would work similarly to a pregnancy test in collaboration with the University of California San Francisco.
“On the clinical side, the main area of need right now for us is the ability to ramp up capacity for diagnostic testing for this virus,” Charles Chiu, a UCSF lab medicine professor working on the project, said during a virtual coronavirus panel on March 10. “It’s absolutely imperative for us to be able to diagnose infection both rapidly and accurately as a way to prevent further spread.”
Cepheid-Sherlock Biosciences Project
Cepheid and Sherlock Biosciences are collaborating on an early-stage project aiming to create a coronavirus test system powered by Cepheid’s testing platform, GeneXpert Systems, and Sherlock’s namesake single-molecule detection method, SHERLOCK (short for Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unlocking), developed by the biochemist Feng Zhang, also a pioneer of CRISPR.