The abbreviated name of the program, RADx, suggests something from science fiction.
But the initiative, formally called Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics, has a more low-tech goal when it comes to COVID-19 tests: Make them faster, and make them cheaper.
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, who has been at the center of congressional efforts to encourage quicker and more accessible testing for the virus, relied on a reality-TV concept to propel this effort. He regards it as a “shark tank.”
As in the televised “Shark Tank,” where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to investors in hopes of getting funding.
In this case, federal researchers and private industry “are working together overtime to develop new ways to produce tens of millions of COVID-19 diagnostic tests that are capable of providing quick, inexpensive results,” Blunt wrote in an opinion piece in USA Today this week.
The GOP lawmaker co-authored the piece with fellow Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Blunt chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal health spending, and Alexander, also a Republican, chairs the chamber’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
At the center of the commentary rests the idea that American health care workers, conducting about 800,000 daily COVID tests now, up from about 145,000 daily in April, need more of them that deliver quicker results and at a more reasonable price.
“If you go get a test and you don’t have a response for five days, that really doesn’t do anybody a whole lot of good,” Blunt said on the Senate floor last week.
“You have been moving around for five days, maybe without symptoms, but you don’t know that you are continuing to spread the virus, but you are. If you had known in five minutes or 15 minutes what it took you five days to find out, how many less people would have gotten the disease?”
Congress passed the “shark tank” idea in April, allotting $2.5 billion in the public-private effort. Since then, 650 applicants submitted proposals that the National Institutes of Health judged in need of a further look.
After review, 31 went into the first phase of testing, with scientists, engineers and others studying the possibilities. The ideas got whittled then to 20 in the second phase, then down to seven a couple of weeks ago.
Of those remaining, Blunt said, four focus on lab-based testing, while the other three aim at rapid “point-of-care” testing that can be carried out in places like workplaces, schools and nursing homes.
Timing of results show promise to be as little as 15 to 30 minutes.
“Tens of millions of new diagnostic tests with quick results are key to containing the virus and building confidence to go back to school, back to work and out to eat,” Alexander said in a statement about the program’s progress. “This is the surest path toward normalcy until we have a vaccine.”
Blunt, in his Senate floor speech, emphasized that the tests must to plentiful enough, and cheap enough, that millions of Americans can take them perhaps dozens of times.
“We need tests where every person who walks into an office or a factory or a nursing home or a school or a child care center has the confidence to know that they’re not bringing a virus into that center that they don’t know about,” the Missouri senator said. “It is a high hurdle, but I think it’s one we’re going to clear.”