- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2020

More than 1,000 test developers are vying for federal support in a “Shark Tank”-style contest to develop the millions of coronavirus tests needed to safely reopen businesses and schools amid the pandemic, the chief of the National Institutes of Health said Thursday.

NIH Director Francis Collins said his agency called for new technologies “from the basement to the boardroom” to kickstart the competition funded by Congress’ latest virus-relief bill.

The agency received a huge response and will look for “the gems that provide real promise for COVID-19” and deserve government backing.

“I have honestly never seen anything move this quickly,” Dr. Collins told the Senate Health Committee. “The game is on, and it’s going to be a wild ride.”

The goal of the project, he said, is to “help make millions more accurate and easy-to-use tests per week available per to all Americans by the end of summer and even more in time for the flu season.”

Among the 1,000 developers who’ve started applications, nearly 80 are complete and 20 are ready to move into the first phase of scrutiny. A panel of business and clinical experts will vet the technologies to see which make it to the next phase.

“The technology has to be validated,” Dr. Collins said. “Anything that fails will basically fall out of the tank.”

Dr. Collins said the winning technologies must produce tests that are accessible, spit out fast results and are sensitive enough to flag people who were just infected and don’t show symptoms.

He said some innovators in the shark tank might be “big enough fish” to skip initial steps in development.

“We don’t hold anybody back,” Dr. Collins said.

Widespread COVID-19 testing is considered the critical piece in reopening America amid the pandemic, which has infected more than 1.2 million people and killed over 73,500 in the U.S.

Diagnostics root out who is carrying the disease — especially those who don’t show symptoms — and make sure they are isolated for sufficient time instead of spreading it around.

Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander said the U.S. has conducted more than 7.5 million tests and will soon be conducting 2 million per week.

“But to contain the disease and give confidence to Americans that it is safe to leave our homes, we will need tens of millions of tests, many more than our current technologies can produce,” Mr. Alexander, Tennessee Republican, said. “Testing is necessary to identify the small number of those with the disease and those exposed to it so they can be quarantined, instead of quarantining the whole country.”

Mr. Alexander and Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, pushed for NIH’s “Shark Tank” competition to find technologies that can radically scale-up testing capacity over the summer, as colleges reopen and the health system prepares to deal with the virus and flu season at the same time. The name refers to the television show in which entrepreneurs compete for investors.

The chairman said it will be important to conduct sweeping testing at nursing homes, hospitals and prisons to limit the spread of the disease.

“All roads back to work and back to school lead through testing,” Mr. Alexander said.

The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said she’s eager to see the results but scolded the White House, saying it’s failed to develop a comprehensive testing strategy or acknowledge the scale of the challenge.

“I wish I could say I had better things to say about the administration’s response, but I do not,” Mrs. Murray said.

Senators from Alabama, Alaska and South Carolina, meanwhile, said they don’t want rural populations to be overlooked as testing capacity expands, while Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah said it was unclear why the U.S. was pursuing new technology instead of ramping up production of the highly touted rapid-tests from Abbott Labs.

“It strikes me that this kind of machine has some potential,” Mr. Romney, a Republican, said.

Dr. Collins said they’re a good product but not enough places have the machines, which are “not exactly inexpensive.”

The director also said the project does not focus on separate tests for antibodies that might reveal who cleared a COVID-19 infection and may have natural defenses to the disease.

The commercial market seems to have responded aggressively in developing those tests, he said.

Dr. Collins said it will be important to track people who develop antibodies — with their consent — to see whether or not they remain protected or get the disease again.

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