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Fast and inexpensive coronavirus tests are now arriving

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2020 has been a difficult year, but despite all the pain and uncertainty, there are still signs of hope for a brighter future. This week, Frontier Group analysts share stories of the societal changes, technologies and movements that inspire us.

Put a bunch of elite athletes in a “bubble” in the Wide World of Sports complex and you get excellent basketball. Task a bunch of top scientists with finding a cheaper, less invasive coronavirus test, and you get a much-needed public health innovation.

These stories are related: when the NBA moved its season into a “bubble” in Orlando, it planned to use 17,000 tests to keep players and staff safe until the season was over. The NBA teamed up with researchers at Yale to develop a new test, one that doesn’t require a brain-tickling nasal swab – and is faster and cheaper than those that do.

The test, called SalivaDirect, has been in use by the NBA for months. It works by using saliva instead of nasal fluid, allowing the tests to be analyzed with common enzymes instead of specialized reagents. Collection is much simpler – you can spit into a vial instead of being swabbed by a medical professional. All this adds up to a test that delivers the same result as expensive commercial tests 94 percent of the time at one hundredth the cost – as little as $1.29 per sample.

In mid-August, the protocol for SalivaDirect received FDA Emergency Use Authorization. The Yale researchers who developed the tests posted directions and materials online, a deliberate choice to help facilitate widespread adoption. “If cheap alternatives like SalivaDirect can be implemented across the country, we may finally get a handle on this pandemic, even before a vaccine,” said research scientist Dr. Anne Wyllie. Her colleague Dr. Nathan Grubaugh, assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health, went even further:

"My goal is not to test athletes. That's not my target population. My target population is everybody. There were concerns about partnering with the NBA when all these other people need testing. But the simple answer ended up being the NBA was going to do all this testing anyway, so why not partner with them and try to create something for everyone?"

The test developed through the successful partnership between the NBA and Yale is just one of several recent developments in rapid COVID testing. Another “innovative” new saliva test, developed by researchers at the University at Albany, doesn’t require amplifying RNA, meaning that it needs minimal lab infrastructure. And in August, Abbott Laboratories won FDA approval for a rapid test that takes 15 minutes and costs $5. It works and looks similar to a pregnancy test and doesn’t require any specialized equipment, and the Trump Administration purchased 150 million for strategic deployment to schools and other vulnerable areas.

Fast, accurate and widespread testing is critical to identifying outbreaks before they can spread out of control. These tests will shine a light on where the invisible enemy is hiding and give us a tool that’s been missing from our arsenal. The U.S.’ response to this pandemic has been bedeviled by testing failures since the very beginning, from failures in the first CDC test to the lack of national coordination – to say nothing of a change to CDC guidance in late August that recommended fewer people get tested.

The proliferation of new testing technologies is an opportunity to control the virus better than ever before, and we should leap to seize it. The most optimistic I’ve been since the start of the pandemic was a few weeks ago, when former FDA chief Dr. Scott Gottlieb said we were at an inflection point in controlling the virus through better testing.

“What you’re going to see is a lot of this innovation come on the market all at once,” Gottlieb said. “I think we’re coming at the point right now that you’re going to see a real explosion in testing opportunities.”

I certainly hope so.

Photo credit Prachatai via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)