As countries race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, just determining who’s infected remains a major challenge.
Large-scale testing is a crucial element in containing the virus, experts say, because many who contract it exhibit little to no symptoms. Without widespread testing, it’s a daunting task to identify contagious individuals and isolate them.
To help meet that challenge, the XPRIZE Foundation, which aims to spur technological and industry advancements, is offering a $5 million prize to develop a new COVID-19 rapid test. Competitors can enter until midnight Tuesday. Since July, 659 teams from 68 countries have registered.
Currently, test results for the novel coronavirus can take up to two weeks, creating headaches for medical professionals, public-health experts and elected officials. Without the ability to test people often and with speedy results, many cases may go undetected, which can lead to new clusters of infections.
“We have, like everyone else around the globe, seen the impact this has had on mental health, physical health, bringing the wheels off of the economy,” said Anousheh Ansari, chief executive officer of the XPRIZE Foundation. “We always look at innovation to solve grand challenges.”
Ansari and her family poured millions into funding the first XPRIZE in 2004 that launched the commercial space race. That $10 million prize brought in about $100 million of investment to the teams that competed, helping fuel what is now a more than $100 billion industry.
Ansari’s hope is that the COVID prize will seed a similar investment boom to fight a virus that has infected more than 27.3 million people and killed more than 892,000 worldwide.
The competition for a rapid COVID test has few requirements except accuracy and speed. The test must return results within minutes or hours, not days. And it must be affordable, costing no more than $12 each, according to Ansari. Ease of administration is key as well, so people can test themselves, she said.
Last month, Abbott Laboratories announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had given emergency authorization for its rapid $5 COVID-19 test. The antigen test involves a nasal swab, and is based on the same technology as a flu test. Abbott introduced one of the first such tests in March. The XPRIZE competition is proceeding because multiple tests are still needed.
Unlike past competitions, organizers expect multiple winners. The prize purse can be split up to five ways. Tech behemoths Amazon.com Inc and Google are helping to back the award. Anthem Inc. and six other Blue Cross Blue Shield health plans are contributing more than $4 million. Venture capital firms also have joined the initiative, attracted by the opportunity to scale the winning tests. RA Capital in Boston is investing millions in a non-profit consortium of scientists and investors that, in turn, is investing in the rapid-test prize.
“We are able to take the technologies that we identify and ultimately pull together the various innovators,” said Peter Kolchinsky, managing partner at RA Capital. “Pull them together into one grand effort, and create a sustainable business model here. And if we come up with one, then there is a return for those investors who risked their capital to help bring it about.”
The competition is the best shot for developing a test at a cost that would make it scalable, said Mariya Filipova, Anthem’s vice president of innovation.
“There’s no shortage of ideas,” she said. “What we’re doing is providing the platform to validate them, with the rigor that’s required, and the platform to really scale them.”
The opportunity of scaling the technology is why venture firms like RA Capital are putting up money, not just for the prize, but a $50 million investment fund that winners can tap.
“The challenge for us is unlike anything else we’ve faced,” RA Capital’s Kolchinsky said. “It may be that this ends up being just the starting point for a better way of screening and testing for other diseases.”
At the very least, the competition can help bring society another step closer to taming the pandemic, Ansari said.
“Testing is an important part of a permanent solution, not just for this pandemic, but in the future,” she said.