‘Shark Tank’-Type Contest for Covid-19 Tests Planned by U.S.

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The U.S. National Institutes of Health is urging scientists and investors to compete in a $500 million national challenge that will help the agency identify the best candidates for at-home or point-of-care tests for Covid-19.

The NIH is likening the program to “Shark Tank,” the reality television show where entrepreneurs compete for financial backing. Scientists and innovators will vie for a share of a $500 million fund that will be awarded to those with the most promising technologies. Finalists will also be matched with technical, manufacturing and business experts to help advance their products.

The NIH said the objective is to make millions of accurate and easy-to-use tests per week available to all Americans by the end of summer 2020, and even more in time for the flu season. The contest is part of a new program called the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative, which received $1.5 billion in federal stimulus funding, the agency said Wednesday.

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“We need all innovators, from the basement to the boardroom, to come together to advance diagnostic technologies, no matter where they are in development,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins in a statement. “Now is the time for that unmatched American ingenuity to bring the best and most innovative technologies forward to make testing for COVID-19 widely available.”

Collins said the NIH program, which goes by the acronym RADx, is inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s World War II-era “Rad Lab,” which developed radar technology used to identify planes and find bombing targets.

The project builds on other NIH-led public-private partnerships to address the pandemic, which has led to more than 3.1 million cases and 219,000 deaths worldwide.

Under Fire

Though U.S. testing capacity has improved in recent weeks, experts say it still remains a fraction of what it should be. President Donald Trump has come under fire for a testing crisis that has resulted in uneven access and bottlenecks to getting supplies. The diagnostic tests are necessary to bring the U.S. economy back to a state of normalcy, particularly as an increasing number of states move toward reopening.

The Trump administration has relied on drug retailers and lab-testing companies to scale out diagnostics. On Monday, the White House revealed plans to partner with chain retailers to put in place facilities across the country in hopes that all 50 states can ultimately test at least 2% of residents.

Diagnostic experts have been concerned about the accuracy of at-home tests in particular. The most accurate tests have until recently relied on virus samples that must be collected with a swab deep in the nose, and companies making both at-home and point-of-care tests are rushing to validate other collection methods that are equally accurate.

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The NIH said the program will use the rest of the federal funding to continue working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to quickly assess and commercialize more advanced diagnostic technologies.

RADx will also deploy capital to a network of point-of-care technology leaders created years ago by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. The network, which has hubs at Emory University, Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Medical School, among others, has assembled review boards to evaluate diagnostic technology proposals.

— With assistance by Kristen V Brown

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