The pandemic’s impact has been dramatic and far-reaching. While we’re not yet “on the other side”, promising vaccines are being – or soon to be – deployed worldwide, giving many people hope that 2021 will be a brighter and better year than the one before.
For all its tragedies – and they are numerous and enduring – the pandemic has also spurred or accelerated healthcare and biotech innovations that are changing the field for years to come. Most importantly, it has demonstrated what is truly possible when the worlds of technology and medicine come together. Who could have imagined that we’d have a vaccine – a process that has traditionally taken a decade – in less than a year? Or that countries would be able to rally testing and vaccine delivery infrastructure at breakneck speeds? We have witnessed a proliferation of testing innovation that will have significant impact on the ongoing fight against COVID-19 and beyond.
Arguably, COVID-19 has been one of the most important proving grounds of our time. What we’ve learned from it can and should be applied to how we fight other diseases. The pandemic has forever changed how every healthcare stakeholder approaches disease and put a global spotlight on the importance of health and wellness. These forces create a perfect storm for making 2021 a critical year for precision health, when we will bring about new strategies to tackle illness through asymptomatic testing and early detection. Here, we discuss some of the most promising possibilities for 2021 and beyond.
Disease diagnosis at home via a simple fingerpick
Scientists worldwide are making incredible strides in seeing and studying COVID-19. However, the most reliable method to date is an invasive nasal swab that is not only unpleasant, but also requires professional administration. This stagnates the pace of testing and wastes precious PPE. As we look to 2021, there is considerable promise for highly sensitive biomarker technologies to improve the reliability of the saliva swab and also make a blood-based COVID-19 antigen test a reality. Ideally, this blood-based option could be self-administered, with patients sending in a fingerpick sample or dried blood spot for analysis right from their homes – allowing for more consistent testing that is easy, non-invasive, and reliable.
This immediate application is the test case for what could become the norm for studying and preventing disease early and asymptomatically through homecare sampling via the blood. Imagine being able to apply the same findings and testing infrastructure put in place for COVID-19 to cancer, Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis and other debilitating diseases?
The pandemic has necessitated a digital world of telehealth and virtual care, but these options also enable wider access to care. Expanding research and potentially clinical trials through this newfound pathway of at-home sample collection could considerably augment the data and insights researchers can use to guide therapeutic development, assess the efficacy of new vaccines and inform personalized patient care decisions. The hitch has simply been having technology that is sensitive enough to see disease in these less invasive sample types. Now, we are on the verge of a long-term solution. COVID-19 detection is just the beginning and the train will keep moving long after the pandemic, creating the opportunity for at-home preventative disease testing to help address some of the biggest healthcare threats of our time.
We’ll learn more about the mechanisms behind long haulers and the hidden effects of COVID-19
While vaccines promise to help curb the spread of COVID-19, the virus continues to leave its mark on those it has infected through long term health consequences. There is still much to learn about the long-term side effects of COVID-19 and why certain people evolve into “long-hauler” cases with ongoing respiratory conditions, headaches, anosmia (loss of smell), ageusia (loss of taste) and other symptoms
The body of evidence demonstrating the virus’s impact on the nervous system continues to grow. For example, research on the brain has linked COVID-19 to delirium, brain inflammation, stroke and nerve damage. However, it’s clear that it will require years of study to fully understand the long-term effects of these symptoms.
Studies on the short and long-term neurological impacts of COVID-19 will continue into 2021 and beyond, with a full panel of biomarkers likely to play a role in these efforts. Through blood-based biomarker testing, long haulers can be monitored and assessed regularly through simple methods that can be done at a doctor or right from their own homes. Notably, markers including serum neurofilament light (sNfL) and interferon (IFN) type I are expected to feature prominently, as they have already demonstrated their utility in understanding COVID-19 and predicting severity, immune response and neuronal damage.
Biomarkers play an increasing role in routine care
Biomarkers found in serum and plasma have been a fixture of research for many years. Thousands of peer reviewed studies validate their utility for detecting, monitoring, and supporting treatment of numerous diseases, from detecting Alzheimer’s years before symptoms to the potential to catch cancer at stage one versus stage four, when it is much more treatable.
Yet, despite this evidence, few patients have access to this type of cutting-edge testing. A recent study conducted by LUNGevity Foundation, the nation’s premier lung cancer-focused nonprofit organization, in partnership with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, found that limitations in coverage for innovative biomarker techniques, such as liquid biopsies, is precluding many people from these valuable tools.
The pandemic has created a renewed focus on health and has healthcare stakeholders across the board rethinking how we combat disease and administer care. COVID-19 has shone light on the areas of opportunity within the healthcare system and has presented us all with a chance to do better in the years ahead.
We can never get back what has been lost to the virus, but we can apply the innovations, collaborations and vigor generated by this tragedy to prevent another global-scale event and truly change the paradigm of the healthcare system from reactive care to truly preventative precision health.
Kevin Hrusovsky is the chairman and CEO of Quanterix a life science company that develops digital immunoassay platforms that advances precision health for life sciences research, and founder of Powering Precision Health