Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Developing faster, more convenient ways of testing for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) will be essential to our efforts to end this deadly pandemic. Despite the tremendous strides that have been made in diagnostics over the past seven months, we still need more innovation.
We need reliable, affordable tests for the presence SARS-CoV-2—the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19—that do not take hours or days to deliver results. We need tests that are more user friendly, and that don’t rely on samples collected by swabs that have to be inserted deep into the nose by someone wearing PPE. We need tests that can be performed at the point-of-care, whether a doctor’s office, urgent care clinic, long-term care facility, or even a home. Ideally, such tests should also be able to integrate with mobile devices to convey results and transmit data seamlessly. Above all, we need tests that are accessible to everyone.
Most current diagnostic tests for SARS-CoV-2 involve detecting viral genetic material using a decades-old technology called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). If there’s even a tiny bit of viral genetic material in a patient’s sample, PCR can amplify the material millions of times so that it can be readily detected. The problem is that this amplification process is time-consuming and requires a thermal cycling machine that’s generally operated by trained personnel in sophisticated lab settings.
To spur the creation of new approaches that can rapidly expand access to testing, NIH launched the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) program in late April 2020. This fast-paced, innovative effort, conducted in partnership with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), and the Department of Defense, is supported by $1.5 billion in federal stimulus funding. The goal? To expand diagnostic testing capacity for COVID-19 in the United States to about 6 million tests per day by December. That’s quite a leap forward because our nation’s current testing capacity is currently about 1 million tests per day.
Just yesterday, I joined other NIH leaders in authoring a special report in the New England Journal of Medicine that describes RADx’s main activities, and provides an update on the remarkable progress that’s been made in just three short months . In a nutshell, RADx consists of four components: RADx-tech, RADx Advanced Technology Platforms (RADx-ATP). RADx Radical (RADx-rad), and RADx Underserved Populations (RADx-UP).
Though all parts of RADx are operating on a fast-track, RADx-tech has embraced its rapid timelines in a can-do manner unlike anything that I’ve encountered in my 27 years in government. Here’s how the process, which has been likened to a scientific “shark tank,” works.
Once an applicant submits a test idea to RADx-tech, it’s reviewed within a day by a panel of 30 experts. If approved, the application moves to a highly competitive “shark-tank” in which a team of experts spend about 150 to 200 person-hours with the applicant evaluating the technical, clinical, and commercial strengths and weaknesses of the proposed test.
From there, a detailed proposal is presented to a steering committee, and then sent to NIH. If we at NIH think it’s a great idea, promising early-stage technologies enter what’s called “phase one” development, with considerable financial support and the expectation that the applicant will hit its validation milestones within a month. Technologies that succeed can then go to “phase two”, where support is provided for scale-up of tests for meeting regulatory requirements and supporting manufacture, scale-up, and distribution.
The major focus of RADx-tech is to simplify and speed diagnostic testing for COVID-19. Tests now under development include a variety of mobile devices that can be used at a doctor’s office or other point-of-care settings, and give results in less than an hour. In addition, about half of the tests now under development use saliva or another alternative to samples gathered via nasal swabs.
As Americans think about how to move back safely into schools, workspaces, and other public areas in the era of COVID-19, it is clear that we need to figure out ways to make it easier for everyone to get tested. To attain that goal, RADx has three other components that build on different aspects of this social imperative:
• RADx Advanced Technology Platforms (RADx-ATP). This program offers a rapid-response application process for firms with existing point-of-care technologies authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for detecting SARS-CoV-2. These technologies are already advanced enough that they don’t need the shark tank. The RADx-ATP program provides support for scaling up production to between 20,000 and 100,000 tests per day by the fall. Another component of this program provides support for expanding automated “mega-labs” to increase testing capacity across the country by another 100,000 to 250,000 tests per day.
• RADx Radical (RADx-rad). The program seeks to fuel the development of truly futuristic testing technologies. For example, it supports projects that use biomarkers to detect an infection or predict the severity of disease, including the likelihood of developing COVID-related multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). Other areas of interest include the use of biosensors to detect the presence of the virus in a person’s breath and the analysis of wastewater to conduct community-based surveillance.
• RADx Underserved Populations (RADx-UP). Data collected over the past several months make it clear that Blacks, Latinxs, and American Indians/Alaska Natives are hospitalized and die of COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates than other groups. RADx-UP aims to engage underserved communities to improve access to testing. Such actions will include closely examining the factors that have led to the disproportionate burden of the pandemic on underserved populations, as well as building infrastructure that can be leveraged to provide optimal access and uptake of SARS-CoV-2 testing in such communities.
At NIH, we have great hopes for what RADx-supported research will do to help bring to an end the greatest public health crisis of our generation. Yet the benefits may not end there. The diagnostic testing technologies developed here will have many other applications moving forward. Long after the COVID-19 pandemic becomes a chapter in history books, I’m convinced the RADx model of rapid innovation will be inspiring future generations of researchers as they look for creative new ways to address other diseases and conditions.
 Rapid scaling up of COVID-19 diagnostic testing in the United States—The NIH RADx Initiative. Tromberg BJ, Schwetz TA, Perez-Stable E, Hodes RJ. Woychick RP, Bright RA, Fleurence RL, Collins FS. NEJM; 2020 July 16. [Online publication ahead of print]
Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)
“NIH mobilizes national innovation initiative for COVID-19 diagnostics,” NIH news release, April 29, 2020.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
On March 19, 2020, California became the first U. S. state to issue a stay-at-home order to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The order shuttered research labs around the state, and thousands of scientists began sheltering at home and shifting their daily focus to writing papers and grants, analyzing data from past experiments, and catching up on their scientific reading.
That wasn’t the case for everyone. Some considered the order as presenting a perfect opportunity to volunteer, sometimes outside of their fields of expertise, to help their state and communities respond to the pandemic.
One of those willing to pitch in is Jennifer Doudna, University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) and executive director of the school’s Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), a partnership with the University of California, San Francisco (UC San Francisco). She is also recognized as a pioneer in the development of the popular gene-editing technology called CRISPR.
Doudna, an NIH-supported structural biochemist with no experience in virology or clinical diagnostics, decided that she and her IGI colleagues could establish a pop-up testing lab at their facility. Their job: boost the SARS-CoV-2 testing capacity in her community.
It was a great idea, but a difficult one to execute. The first daunting step was acquiring Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certification. This U. S. certification ensures that quality standards are met for laboratory testing of human blood, body fluid, and other specimens for medical purposes. CLIA certification is required not only to perform such testing in the IGI lab space, but for Doudna’s graduate students, postdocs, and volunteers to process patient samples.
Still, fate was on their side. Doudna and her team partnered with UC Berkeley’s University Health Services to extend the student health center’s existing CLIA certification to the IGI space. And because of the urgency of the pandemic, federal review of the extension request was expedited and granted in a few weeks.
The next challenge was technological. Doudna’s team had to make sure that its diagnostic system was as good or better than those of other SARS-CoV-2 testing platforms. With great care and attention to lab safety, the team began assembling two parallel workstreams: one a semi-manual method to get going right away and the other a faster, automated, robotic method to transition to when ready.
Soon, patient samples began arriving in the lab to be tested for the presence of genetic material (RNA) from SARS-CoV-2, an indication that a person is infected with the virus. The diagnostic system was also soon humming along, with Doudna’s automated workstream having the capacity to process 384 samples in parallel.
The pop-up lab—known formally as the IGI SARS-CoV-2 Diagnostic Testing Laboratory—is funded through philanthropy and staffed by more than 50 volunteers from IGI, UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and local data-management companies. Starting on April 6, the lab was fully operational, capable of running hundreds of tests daily with a 24-hour turnaround time for results. A positive test requires that at least two out of three SARS-CoV-2 genomic targets return a positive signal, and the method uses de-identified barcoded sample data to protect patient privacy.
Doudna intends to keep the pop-up lab open as long as her community needs it. So far, they’ve provided testing to UC Berkeley students and staff, first responders (including the entire Berkeley Fire Department), and several members of the city’s homeless population. She says that availability of samples will soon be the rate-limiting step in their sample-analysis pipeline and hopes continued partnerships with local health officials will enable them to work at full capacity to deliver thousands of test results rapidly.
Doudna says she’s been amazed by the team spirit of her lab members and other local colleagues who have come together around a crisis. They’ve gotten the job done by contributing their different skills and resources, including behind-the-scenes efforts by the university’s leadership and staff, philanthropists, city officials, and state government workers.
Although Doudna and her team intend to publish their work to help others follow suit , she says the experience has also provided her with many intangible rewards. It has highlighted the value of resilience and adaptation, as well as given her a newfound appreciation for the complexity and precision of operations in the commercial clinical labs that are a routine part of our medical care.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have thrust all of us into a time warp, in which weeks sometimes feel like months, there is much to do. The amount of work needed to tame this virus is significant and requires an all-hands-on-deck mentality, which NIH and the biomedical research community have embraced fully.
Doudna is not alone. Other labs around the country are engaged in similar efforts. At the NIH’s main campus in Bethesda, MD, staff at the clinical laboratory in the Clinical Center rapidly set up testing for SARS-CoV-2 RNA, and have now tested more than 1,000 NIH staff. Researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard partnered with the city of Cambridge, MA, to pilot COVID-19 surveillance in homeless shelters and skilled nursing and assisted living facilities located there.
Hats off to everyone who goes the extra mile to get us through this tough time. I am so gratified when, guided by compassion and dogged determination of the human spirit, science leads the way and provides much needed hope for our future.
 Blueprint for a Pop-up SARS-CoV-2 Testing Lab. Innovative Genomics Institute SARS-CoV-2 Testing Consortium, Hockemeyer D, Fyodor U, Doudna JA. 2020. medRxiv. Preprint posted on April 12, 2020.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)
CLIA Law & Regulations (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Innovative Genomic Institute (Berkeley, CA)
Doudna Lab (University of California, Berkeley)
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
There’s been a lot of excitement about the potential of antibody-based blood tests, also known as serology tests, to help contain the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. There’s also an awareness that more research is needed to determine when—or even if—people infected with SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, produce antibodies that may protect them from re-infection.
A recent study in Nature Medicine brings much-needed clarity, along with renewed enthusiasm, to efforts to develop and implement widescale antibody testing for SARS-CoV-2 . Antibodies are blood proteins produced by the immune system to fight foreign invaders like viruses, and may help to ward off future attacks by those same invaders.
In their study of blood drawn from 285 people hospitalized with severe COVID-19, researchers in China, led by Ai-Long Huang, Chongqing Medical University, found that all had developed SARS-CoV-2 specific antibodies within two to three weeks of their first symptoms. Although more follow-up work is needed to determine just how protective these antibodies are and for how long, these findings suggest that the immune systems of people who survive COVID-19 have been be primed to recognize SARS-CoV-2 and possibly thwart a second infection.
Specifically, the researchers determined that nearly all of the 285 patients studied produced a type of antibody called IgM, which is the first antibody that the body makes when fighting an infection. Though only about 40 percent produced IgM in the first week after onset of COVID-19, that number increased steadily to almost 95 percent two weeks later. All of these patients also produced a type of antibody called IgG. While IgG often appears a little later after acute infection, it has the potential to confer sustained immunity.
To confirm their results, the researchers turned to another group of 69 people diagnosed with COVID-19. The researchers collected blood samples from each person upon admission to the hospital and every three days thereafter until discharge. The team found that, with the exception of one woman and her daughter, the patients produced specific antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 within 20 days of their first symptoms of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, innovative efforts are being made on the federal level to advance COVID-19 testing. The NIH just launched the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) Initiative to support a variety of research activities aimed at improving detection of the virus. As I recently highlighted on this blog, one key component of RADx is a “shark tank”-like competition to encourage science and engineering’s most inventive minds to develop rapid, easy-to-use technologies to test for the presence of SARS-CoV-2.
On the serology testing side, the NIH’s National Cancer Institute has been checking out kits that are designed to detect antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 and have found mixed results. In response, the Food and Drug Administration just issued its updated policy on antibody tests for COVID-19. This guidance sets forth precise standards for laboratories and commercial manufacturers that will help to speed the availability of high-quality antibody tests, which in turn will expand the capacity for rapid and widespread testing in the United States.
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that there are two different types of SARS-CoV-2 tests. Those that test for the presence of viral nucleic acid or protein are used to identify people who are acutely infected and should be immediately quarantined. Tests for IgM and/or IgG antibodies to the virus, if well-validated, indicate a person has previously been infected with COVID-19 and is now potentially immune. Two very different types of tests—two very different meanings.
There’s still a way to go with both virus and antibody testing for COVID-19. But as this study and others begin to piece together the complex puzzle of antibody-mediated immunity, it will be possible to learn more about the human body’s response to SARS-CoV-2 and home in on our goal of achieving safe, effective, and sustained protection against this devastating disease.
 Antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 in patients with COVID-19. Long QX, Huang AI, et al. Nat Med. 2020 Apr 29. [Epub ahead of print]
“NIH Begins Study to Quantify Undetected Cases of Coronavirus Infection,” NIH News Release, April 10, 2020.
“NIH mobilizes national innovation initiative for COVID-19 diagnostics,” NIH News Release, April 29, 2020.
Policy for Coronavirus Disease-2019 Tests During the Public Health Emergency (Revised), May 2020 (Food and Drug Administration)