NIH seeking innovators 'from the basement to the boardroom' to help create rapid test for COVID-19

The National Institutes of Health is urging all scientists and inventors to compete in a national, “Shark Tank”-like challenge to help create accurate and easy-to-use COVID-19 tests — with the ultimate goal of making millions of much-needed tests available to Americans grappling with the current coronavirus pandemic. 

The agency is spending $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money for its Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative, or “RADx.” Ultimately, it hopes to deploy “millions” of tests per week by the end of summer 2020, “and even more in time for the flu season,” the NIH said Wednesday.

AltaMed Drive-Through COVID-19 Testing

Kayla Ferrari, a physician assistant with AltaMed Health Services, prepares to test a drive-through patient for COVID-19 at the Bristol Street clinic on April 21, 2020 in Santa Ana, California. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Re

Experts say more rapid and accurate testing is needed in order to safely re-open the economy.

Governors in states across the country have said they lack sufficient coronavirus testing supplies to reopen their states, such as swabs and reagents, according to the Washington Post. And since the beginning of the crisis, experts have said the United States has fallen behind in combating COVID-19 due to a lack of testing.

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Vice President Mike Pence said last week that 150,000 coronavirus tests are now being conducted daily in the U.S. — and according to the COVID Tracking Project, about 5.8 million tests had been conducted as of Wednesday since the outbreak began.

A report released last week by Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics emphasized the need to massively increase those figures in order to fully combat COVID-19.

“We need to deliver 5 million tests per day to deliver a safe social reopening,” the report states. “This number will need to increase over time to 20 million a day to fully remobilize the economy.”

As part of the NIH’s national COVID-19 testing challenge, participants will vie for an ultimate share of $500 million that will be awarded to help advance the most promising testing technologies.

The agency said proposals will need to hold up under an initial review for technical, clinical, commercial and regulatory issues — including whether or not the test could be easily scaled up, and if the U.S. health care system could realistically adopt the technology quickly.

If selected, the tech will be put through a rapid, three-phase selection process that will run into summer and must demonstrate “significant progress” to receive continued support, the federal agency said.

“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, M.D., Ph.D. 

“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.”

This story was reported from Cincinnati.