A timely contest calls for biotech innovators to join the effort to develop frequent, fast, cheap, and easy COVID testing
Until recently, Jeff Huber’s main job was as Vice Chairman of GRAIL, a company whose mission is to detect cancer early, when it can be cured. That all changed in April with a call from his daughter’s school.
“They were thinking ahead about how to safely open back up in the fall,” says Jeff, a former Google GOOGL -3% SVP. This was pretty forward-thinking since most schools (including many colleges) only started thinking about it a few weeks ago. They had a simple question: what will it take to reopen our 300-student school safely?
They knew that physical distancing, masks, and good hygiene would be needed. But they also came to understand the need for good testing, a so-called test-trace-isolate program to catch Covid occurrences before they become outbreaks. They knew that other schools and workplaces were facing the same testing challenge, so they went in search of solutions others had come up with.
“There wasn’t any simple answer or anywhere close to it,” says Jeff.
So, with Jeff’s help and background in diagnostic testing, the school set its own criteria for the testing needed to return students to the classroom. It didn’t take long to realize if they solved this problem for his daughter’s school, they could solve it for every school, every university, and every business.
“We were also starting to see at-risk hotspots emerge like nursing homes, prisons, and manufacturing companies, so it was clear immediately that this had very broad implications,” he says. “This was a fundamental question that needed to be answered.”
The start of a community solution
That is how OpenCovidScreen was born. Jeff co-founded the non-profit organization that same month to catalyze Covid-19 testing to enable a safe return to work and school, and to protect hotspots like nursing homes. One of the first tasks for the all-star coalition of academics, investors, and industry leaders was to produce a white paper defining the key attributes of good testing, dubbed “FFCE” for frequent, fast, cheap, and easy:
- Frequent: Ability to test ~500 people/week, or ~200 people/day), and scalable to thousands/week by replicating a simple setup
- Fast turnaround: 12-hour maximum time from sample to result, to enable “next morning” results
- Cheap: $5 per test or less (“about the cost of a latte,” Jeff says), including consumables
- Easy: Simple self-collection such as a spit test or swab of the mouth/nostril, rather than the standard, somewhat uncomfortable nasopharyngeal swab
To put these recommendations into action, OpenCovidScreen partnered with XPRIZE, which has world-class expertise in developing competitions, judging them, and connecting with the right communities.
“OpenCovidScreen is really driving the definition of the problem,” says Jeff, defining the grand challenge that the groups are trying to solve. “ We brought a lot of our network of scientific experts in biotech industry experts to it.
Together, they launched the XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing competition just about four weeks ago. The contest is accepting registrations through the end of the month. Even though there are already over 450 teams from 50 countries across the world, Jeff believes there’s still more innovation out there.
“We want the best and brightest from everywhere,” he says, “and we really need innovation across the entire spectrum, from friendly and scalable collection approaches to innovation around the core assay, making it cheaper and faster.” There’s even a need for how best to use mobile phones for tracking so that test results are used for contact tracing and returned in a private, thoughtful way. “Across the spectrum, there’s an enormous opportunity for innovation.”
The XPRIZE has brought together a who’s who of leaders in health and tech, including Anthem, Blue Shield of California, Cambia Health, Amazon AMZN -2.2%, Google, Illumina ILMN -1.2%, Ancestry, Thermo Fisher TMO -2.3%, Exact Sciences, Twist Bioscience, and Opentrons.
If the $5 million XPRIZE isn’t motivation enough, the program has also partnered with the Covid Apollo Project, a $50 million project to enable a safe and sustainable return to work and school by identifying, assembling, developing, and scaling the most promising Covid-19 diagnostic opportunities. Led by RA Capital with partnership from other prominent biotechnology-focused investment firms Redmile, Samsara, Perceptive Advisors, and Bain Capital, the group is ready to help the XPRIZE winners take their solutions to scale.
Innovation is everywhere
One of the silver linings of the pandemic crisis is that it has really pushed the field forward, Jeff says. He points to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which like UC Berkeley, Yale University, and Washington University, has developed its own saliva-based test out of a necessity to test up to 50,000 students twice a week. In the case of Yale, they also put NBA players back on the basketball court.
“Others were saying it was science fiction to make that happen,” Jeff says. “[The universities] said, ‘Screw it, we’re going to do it.’ And they made it happen.”
Looking into the future, Huber says that breath-based assays and new antigen approaches could speed testing and drive the costs down to $1-$2, especially through multiplexing and pooled testing strategies. Whatever the future brings, Jeff says we need to keep innovating.
“We can’t become complacent and say that vaccines are going to save us.”
Groups can add their research team to the XPRIZE contest by August 31. Visit the XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing for more details.
Follow me on Twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology. Thank you to Kevin Costa for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about—including Twist Bioscience, Illumina, Thermo Fisher, and Opentrons—are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.0