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Coronavirus and the Need To Go Beyond Testing in a Pandemic

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Governments and health agencies dealing with the coronavirus pandemic are increasingly investing in diagnostic testing kits in an effort to get on top of the outbreak.

Testing reveals invaluable information about how COVID-19 is spreading and allows authorities to more accurately predict future spread. Using this data, governments can take informed steps to implement targeted interventions and better protect public health. 

The approach has already been shown to have an impact in areas such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, and has been endorsed by the World Health Organisation director-general, who urged countries to step up testing, saying they “cannot fight a fire blindfolded.” 

Technology Networks
spoke to Phil Groom, commercial director of
Bond Digital Health, about the need to go beyond testing in the COVID-19 pandemic, and why data capture is the key to pandemic preparedness and tackling future outbreaks.

Anna MacDonald (AM): What is Bond’s role in the international consortium to create a rapid test for COVID-19?

Phil Groom (PG):
Bond is the digital partner in this consortium enabling data capture. Led by Bond’s Canadian partner Sona Nanotech, the consortium, which also includes GE Healthcare Life Sciences and the Native Antigen Company, is developing a rapid test for COVID-19.

This novel test is based on lateral flow technology and will be able to detect the virus even in small quantities in seemingly healthy people who are showing no symptoms. Giving results in 5-15 minutes, this rapid test will cost less than US $50 when ready.

Bond Digital Health is making this test even more valuable by enabling real-time data capture with its "medical grade" connectivity and digital products. Combining Sona’s cutting-edge science with Bond’s digital technology will provide the end-to-end diagnostic solution that most governments and health agencies want right now.

Bond is the only company in the world servicing the lateral flow industry with its bespoke digital solutions.  Our medical grade technology connects lateral flow devices to the cloud allowing the secure capture of results and data and storing them in the cloud. 

Now, it would not make sense to aggregate all this data and not make it accessible - in a pandemic, the costs of not sharing latest data and knowledge are just too high. Our technology supports this instant sharing by visually interpreting the data on easy-to-use dashboards where trends can be monitored in real-time and where results are geo-mapped and time stamped. When fully deployed, this will enable authorities to prioritise the use of scarce resources in vulnerable areas and control and manage the spread of the virus in real time.

AM: How is this test different to other tests currently available or being developed?

If you look at the science and technology behind some of the currently available rapid testing kits, most of them are not specific nor sensitive enough to detect COVID-19. That is because they look for antibodies which are only identifiable post infection.

Lab-based PCR kits - the current frontline standard – don’t offer the turnaround needed, require trained experts and the use of special equipment, and can be expensive.

Sona’s test is different. It’s a direct antigen test that looks for a specific coronavirus protein, the S1 spike protein. Using a nasal swab sample, it will produce results in 5-15 minutes and will cost less than US $50.

If a patient is infected with COVID-19 they will contain various levels of the virus depending on how long they have been infected. The consortium is aiming to make the test as sensitive as possible to detect as little amount of virus as possible, therefore detecting patients that may not be showing any symptoms but are actually infected and infectious.

This is the test governments and health authorities across the world want. It will have no competition in situations where quick and accurate information is needed, for example at airports, before boarding cruise ships, in the health service, going into work, etc.

AM: Why do you say we need to “go beyond testing” in this pandemic?

Testing itself is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to go beyond just testing; we need to capture the data at the point of testing, manage it in the cloud and then geo-map the results visually. Only then will we stand a chance of controlling the spread of the virus in real time and deploying resources fast and effectively.

There are various maps tracking the coronavirus outbreak, including one from John Hopkins University, but none of them are real-time. As useful as these are to the public, they are largely reactive, relying on information being passed on from several local, national and international authorities.  With the limitations of current testing methods, there is no way we can be sure this information is accurate, and we have no insight into the health status of the population which has not yet been tested.

AM: What role can digital technology and data play in combating this and future pandemics?

While it is reassuring to see efforts and resources being put into developing rapid diagnostic tests, particularly point-of-care tests, this outbreak further highlights the real-world need for digitally connected, data-driven rapid diagnostic solutions.

Lateral flow has now become the preferred testing method thanks to its portability and ability to deliver rapid, lab-quality results. But to mitigate the effects of a pandemic and to “flatten the curve”, it has to do more - it has to be integrated with the right digital platform and capitalize on the generated data.

Imagine how valuable a point-of-care diagnostic test can be during disease outbreaks when it is connected to the cloud and collects and reports data to all stakeholders in real-time. Authorities would be able to put in place timely measures to stop the spread and prevent transmission.

The diagnostics industry is now ripe for change, and the need for digital transformation is more urgent and apparent than ever. To be prepared for a pandemic is difficult but not impossible. However, we have to act now. We have to work together - the scientific community, technology companies and governments - to deliver the right solutions at the right time.

Phil Groom is commercial director of Bond Digital Health, a UK-based life sciences company that develops app and cloud technology solutions for lateral flow diagnostics.

Phil was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer, Technology Networks.