“Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.” – George Eliot
It may be surprising to learn that, prior to the Great Depression, many of the economic statistics that we now take for granted simply did not exist. For example, nobody could really say with any precision just how bad the unemployment situation was, although the growing number of soup kitchen lines offered a hint. The federal government knew it needed to take action, but how could it pass effective policy without a clear understanding of the situation? How would it know which industries and regions were hit hardest and thus required the most support? Fortunately, a team of bright and diligent statisticians was swiftly assembled to tackle this problem. The work they did and the data that they produced would ultimately play a pivotal role in crafting the New Deal reforms. The rest is history.
Today, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we face a very similar challenge in that we lack the proper information to understand and contain the virus. The data we need can only come through testing, but despite recent efforts to ramp this up, we’re still not doing nearly enough. Cost is a huge factor in this, with most commercially available tests priced at about $100. But even if we could bring these costs down, there are serious challenges around speed and turnaround times. Many tests can take several days or even weeks to return results, which makes them practically useless for anyone planning to leave their house (i.e. they could become infected in between the time it takes to test and receive a negative result).
Not knowing who is infected and who is healthy comes with a high and painful price. Over the past few months, huge swaths of the world have sheltered in place, attempting to slow the spread and prevent the outright collapse of their healthcare systems. Untold numbers of people, unable to ‘work from home’, have been laid off with no clear sign of when they’ll be able to return to work, or if their jobs will even continue to exist at all. While placing the entire population into so-called ‘lockdown’ may have been a prudent first step, this strategy is clearly unsustainable, and not just from an economic perspective. As others have pointed out, there could be further, grimmer consequences related to mental health and domestic abuse.
Until an effective vaccine gets developed, the only way to safely and confidently reopen our communities is through testing that is frequent, fast, cheap, and easy-to-use. Developing this kind of testing at scale is crucial in the global effort to end the pandemic. When we have this kind of testing disseminated to schools and businesses around the world, we can test people multiple times per week, catching pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic cases early, and only requiring those who are infected to quarantine themselves until they’ve recovered. This strategy does not require contact tracing and the tests don’t need perfect accuracy to be effective. They just need to be good enough and cheap enough to make frequent testing accessible to everyone in the world.
It’s a crazy idea, but that’s why XPRIZE has formed a coalition with the leaders in health care, science, and technology to launch XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing. This is a 6-month competition to develop rapid COVID-19 tests for screening purposes that cost less than $15 apiece, produce results in under 12 hours, and utilize minimally invasive sampling techniques, such as saliva or buccal swabs. Across three separate rounds, teams will compete to achieve clinical validation from prominent laboratories in the United States before performing real, on-site testing at locations like schools, offices, nursing homes, factories, and prisons. The top five teams will win $1 million each.
After the competition ends, XPRIZE and its partners will document the winning teams’ testing protocols in a free, multimedia playbook that will be disseminated around the world. With an open science ethos, our vision is to spread useful knowledge about how to build and widely deploy testing solutions, especially in low- and middle-income countries where this is less attainable. Now is the time to act, to try a different approach.
We are seeking the smartest teams from around the world to get involved, so come join the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, safely reopen our societies, and get the global economy up and running again!
Visit https://covidtesting.xprize.org/ to learn more, start a team, or become a partner.