April 21, 2020
There is no safe path forward to combat the novel coronavirus without adequate testing. To contain covid-19 and persuade Americans to leave their homes and return to work and school, the United States will need tens of millions of diagnostic tests. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the coronavirus task force, says there are now 1 million tests available weekly; by mid-June, there will be 2 million to 2½ million available.
That is impressive — but not nearly enough. We should squeeze every test possible out of current technologies, but we need tens of millions more to really get a handle on how far and wide this disease has spread. This demand will only grow as the country goes back to work and some 100,000 public schools and more than 5,000 colleges reopen, we hope, in August.
As the heads of two U.S. Senate panels responsible for public health, we have been talking with experts across the government and the private sector to find anyone who believes that current technology can produce the tens of millions of tests necessary to put this virus behind us. Unfortunately, we have yet to find anyone to do so.
However, those conversations have pointed toward a possible solution.
We propose a competitive “shark tank” — much like the reality-TV show about entrepreneurs, but this time utilizing the capacities of government itself, in coordination with the private sector — to pull out all the stops and create new technologies designed to produce tens of millions of diagnostic tests by August. If there’s a bold idea out there that will work, we need to make sure the funding is available to get it approved and in the hands of health-care providers quickly. We also should improve serologic tests to determine whether someone already has had the disease and has now created the necessary immunity to hopefully fight off the disease in the future.
The first place to find these technologies is at the National Institutes of Health, where two dozen early-stage testing concepts are under development. Some utilize CRISPR gene-editing technology. At least one allows you to use your cellphone to photograph your test swab result and send it to a doctor. Several may incorporate wearable technology.
The second place is the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. BARDA has been working across government and industry to invest in multiple innovative ideas to achieve accurate, fast and easy testing capabilities and build new capacity. BARDA will also play a critical role in partnering with private companies to manufacture and produce tests as necessary and as breakthroughs are discovered.
We must invite breakthrough ideas to our so-called shark tank. We must innovate. And we must use our best scientists at these two agencies and across government to do this faster than ever before.
By incorporating a shark tank environment in government research, we can more quickly develop the necessary technologies to get more tests into circulation. While there is a risk of failure with any research — in science, success is not guaranteed — we also could produce the one mighty great white shark that will help us combat this disease.
Last month, Congress gave BARDA, NIH and other agencies up to $38 billion for testing, treatments and vaccines to fight this virus. We recommend spending even more to advance other research, giving money to states to buy testing equipment, improve data reporting, conduct tests and operate testing centers, and implement contact tracing to identify those who’ve come in contact with sick people so they, too, can quarantine themselves — instead of the rest of us quarantining ourselves.
Specifically, we propose $1 billion to launch this shark tank for testing. Funding would be provided to the NIH to work with BARDA to underwrite any innovative idea with a chance to succeed. Importantly, industry experts and partners would be brought in to evaluate the potential technology, its effectiveness and its scalability.
This is the time for both government and its industry partners to step up and pull out all the stops. American ingenuity will succeed, but like any enterprise, it needs start-up financing to help it thrive.
Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is chairman of the Senate's health appropriations subcommittee.