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NIH Expands Covid-19 Test Technology Challenge

Covid-19 testing

(FEMA.gov)

22 July 2020. National Institutes of Health is expanding its challenge competition to make tests for Covid-19 viruses more widely available and return results faster. Francis Collins, director of NIH, Bruce Tromberg, director of National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering in NIH, and other co-authors describe new features in the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics, or RADx, program in today’s issue of New England Journal of Medicine.

The RADx program was established in April as crowd-sourced challenge to find the best candidates for point-of-care and at-home Covid-19 diagnostics that can translate into large numbers of inexpensive and easy-to-use tests, in a relatively short period of time. The RADx organizers hope to generate innovative solutions for fast, accurate, and easy-to-use diagnostics to detect SARS-CoV-2 viruses and antigens indicating the presence of antibodies protecting against infections. As reported by Science & Enterprise, RADx is a three-stage competition offering a $500,000 prize purse, with the Point-of-Care Technology Research Network, a group established by NIBIB, providing the judges and advisors to competitors.

The new RADx program now aims to boost the nation’s Covid-19 testing capacity to six million tests per day. According to the Covid Tracking Project, the U.S. is testing 600,000 to 800,000 people per day in July, thus to meet this goal means increasing the country’s capacity by seven to 10 times. The RADx challenge, now called RADx tech, drew 600 full applications by mid-July, with 27 entries so far advancing to the first testing and validation stage, and one project reaching the second assessment stage.

To quickly scale up the number and speed of Covid-19 tests, RADx is establishing a separate part of the competition seeking advanced technologies called RADx-ATP for advanced technology platforms. These technologies can include testing systems that already received FDA authorization, which can be scaled up to produce 20,000 to 100,000 tests per day by the fall of 2020. In addition, RADx-ATP entries can include systems that detect for and discriminate between multiple viral infections, such as Covid-19 and influenza, as well as establish or expand regional testing hubs, including those addressing underserved populations.

For those underserved and vulnerable populations, RADx, is adding another separate section called RADx-UP that aims to use Covid-19 testing to better understand disparities in infection rates and disease effects. These populations include racial and ethnic minorities, people in nursing homes and jails, homeless individuals, and rural communities. RADx-UP entries are asked to specify activities such as establishing clinical testing sites across the U.S. to gauge and assess disparities with these populations, or establish community-based programs to identify and address specialized needs.

Another added RADx component seeks non-traditional solutions for detecting or analyzing Covid-19 infections in individuals or communities. Called RADx-rad, for radical, this part of RADx aims for technologies that detect SARS-CoV-2 viruses in exhaled breath or a community’s wastewater. RADx-rad also seeks solutions such as biosensors to easily measure metabolic changes or sensory functions, i.e. loss of smell or taste, characteristic of Covid-19 infections.

Collins and Tromberg tell more about the RADx program in a 25 June NIH Directors Blog entry.

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