You're lying in bed late at night, the foggy swirl of the pandemic's 8th month just beginning to fall behind you, when you detect a slight tickle at the back of your throat.
"If half of people choose to use these tests every other day, then we can stop transmission faster than a vaccine can."
Suddenly fully awake, a jolt of panicked electricity races through your body. Has COVID-19 come for you? In the U.S., answering this simple question is incredibly difficult.
Now, you might have to wait for hours in line in your car to get a test for $100, only to find out your result 10-14 days later -- much too late to matter in stopping an outbreak. Due to such obstacles, a recent report in JAMA Internal Medicine estimated that 9 out of 10 infections in the U.S. are being missed.
But what if you could use a paper strip in the privacy of your own home, like a pregnancy test, and find out if you are contagious in real time?
e25 Bio, a small company in Cambridge, Mass., has already created such a test and it has been sitting on a lab bench, inaccessible, since April. It is an antigen test, which looks for proteins on the outside of a virus, and can deliver results in about 15 minutes. Also like an over-the-counter pregnancy test, e25 envisions its paper strips as a public health screening tool, rather than a definitive diagnostic test. People who see a positive result would be encouraged to then seek out a physician-administered, gold-standard diagnostic test: the more sensitive PCR.
Typically, hospitals and other health facilities rely on PCR tests to diagnose viruses. This test can detect small traces of genetic material that a virus leaves behind in the human body, which tells a clinician that the patient is either actively infected with or recently cleared that virus. PCR is quite sensitive, meaning that it is able to detect the presence of a virus' genetic material very accurately.
But although PCR is the gold-standard for diagnostics, it's also the most labor-intensive way to test for a virus and takes a relatively long time to produce results. That's not a good match for stopping super-spreader events during an unchecked pandemic. PCR is also not great at identifying the infected people when they are most at risk of potentially transmitting the virus to others.
That's because the viral threshold at which PCR can detect a positive result is so low, that it's actually too sensitive for the purposes of telling whether someone is contagious.
"The majority of time someone is PCR positive, those [genetic] remnants do not indicate transmissible virus," epidemiologist Michael Mina recently Tweeted. "They indicate remnants of a recently cleared infection."
To stop the chain of transmission for COVID-19, he says, "We need a more accurate test than PCR, that turns positive when someone is able to transmit."
In other words, we need a test that is better at detecting whether a person is contagious, as opposed to whether a small amount of virus can be detected in their nose or saliva. This kind of test is especially critical given the research showing that asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people have high viral loads and are spreading the virus undetected.
The critical question for contagiousness testing, then, is how big a dose of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, does it take to infect most people? Researchers are still actively trying to answer this. As Angela Rasmussen, a coronavirus expert at Columbia University, told STAT: "We don't know the amount that is required to cause an infection, but it seems that it's probably not a really, really small amount, like measles."
Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told LeapsMag: "It's still unclear what viral load is associated with contagiousness but it is biologically plausible that higher viral loads, in general, are associated with more efficient transmission especially in symptomatic individuals. In those without symptoms, however, the same relationship may not hold and this may be one of the reasons young children, despite their high viral loads, are not driving outbreaks."
"Antigen tests work best when there's high viral loads. They're catching people who are super spreaders."
Mina and colleagues estimate that widespread use of weekly cheap, rapid tests that are 100 times less sensitive than PCR tests would prevent outbreaks -- as long as the people who are positive self-isolate.
So why can't we buy e25Bio's test at a drugstore right now? Ironically, it's barred for the very reason that it's useful in the first place: Because it is not sensitive enough to satisfy the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to the company.
"We're ready to go," says Carlos-Henri Ferré, senior associate of operations and communications at e25. "We've applied to FDA, and now it's in their hands."
The problem, he said, is that the FDA is evaluating applications for antigen tests based on criteria for assessing diagnostics, like PCR, even when the tests serve a different purpose -- as a screening tool.
"Antigen tests work best when there's high viral loads," Ferré says. "They're catching people who are super spreaders, that are capable of continuing the spread of disease … FDA criteria is for diagnostics and not this."
FDA released guidance on July 29th -- 140 days into the pandemic -- recommending that at-home tests should perform with at least 80 percent sensitivity if ordered by prescription, and at least 90 percent sensitivity if purchased over the counter. "The danger of a false negative result is that it can contribute to the spread of COVID-19," according to an FDA spokesperson. "However, oversight of a health care professional who reviews the results, in combination with the patient's symptoms and uses their clinical judgment to recommend additional testing, if needed, among other things, can help mitigate some risks."
Crucially, the 90 percent sensitivity recommendation is judged upon comparison to PCR tests, meaning that if a PCR test is able to detect virus in 100 samples, the at-home antigen test would need to detect virus in at least 90 of those samples. Since antigen tests only detect high viral loads, frustrated critics like Mina say that such guidance is "unreasonable."
"The FDA at this moment is not understanding the true potential for wide-scale frequent testing. In some ways this is not their fault," Mina told LeapsMag. "The FDA does not have any remit to evaluate tests that fall outside of medical diagnostic testing. The proposal I have put forth is not about diagnostic testing (leave that for symptomatic cases reporting to their physician and getting PCR tests)....Daily rapid tests are not about diagnosing people and they are not about public health surveillance and they are not about passports to go to school, out to dinner or into the office. They are about reducing population-level transmission given a similar approach as vaccines."
A reasonable standard, he added, would be to follow the World Health Organization's Target Product Profiles, which are documents to help developers build desirable and minimally acceptable testing products. "A decent limit," Mina says, "is a 70% or 80% sensitivity (if they truly require sensitivity as a metric) to detect virus at Ct values less than 25. This coincides with detection of the most transmissible people, which is important."
(A Ct value is a type of measurement that corresponds inversely to the amount of viral load in a given sample. Researchers have found that Ct values of 13-17 indicate high viral load, whereas Ct values greater than 34 indicate a lack of infectious virus.)
"We believe this should be an at-home test, but [if FDA approval comes through] the first rollout is to do this in laboratories, hospitals, and clinics."
"We believe that population screening devices have an immediate place and use in helping beat the virus," says Ferré. "You can have a significant impact even with a test at 60% sensitivity if you are testing frequently."
When presented with criticism of its recommendations, the FDA indicated that it will not automatically deny any at-home test that fails to meet the 90 percent sensitivity guidance.
"FDA is always open to alternative proposals from developers, including strategies for serial testing with less sensitive tests," a spokesperson wrote in a statement. "For example, it is possible that overall sensitivity of the strategy could be considered cumulatively rather than based on one-time testing….In the case of a manufacturer with an at-home test that can only detect people with COVID-19 when they have a high viral load, we encourage them to talk with us so we can better understand their test, how they propose to use it, and the validation data they have collected to support that use."
However, the FDA's actions so far conflict with its stated openness. e25 ended up adding a step to the protocol in order to better meet FDA standards for sensitivity, but that extra step—sending samples to a laboratory for results—will undercut the test's ability to work as an at-home screening tool.
"We believe this should be an at-home test, but [if FDA approval comes through] the first rollout is to do this in laboratories, hospitals, and clinics," Ferré says.
According to the FDA, no test developers have approached them with a request for an emergency use authorization that proposes an alternate testing paradigm, such as serial testing, to mitigate test sensitivity below 80 percent.
From a scientific perspective, antigen tests like e25Bio's are not the only horse in the race for a simple rapid test with potential for at-home use. CRISPR technology has long been touted as fertile ground for diagnostics, and in an eerily prescient interview with LeapsMag in November, CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang spoke of its potential application as an at-home diagnostic for an infectious disease specifically.
"I think in the long run it will be great to see this for, say, at-home disease testing, for influenza and other sorts of important public health [concerns]," he said in the fall. "To be able to get a readout at home, people can potentially quarantine themselves rather than traveling to a hospital and then carrying the risk of spreading that disease to other people as they get to the clinic."
Zhang's company Sherlock Biosciences is now working on scaled-up manufacturing of a test to detect SARS CoV-2. Mammoth Biosciences, which secured funding from the National Institutes of Health's Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics program, is also working on a CRISPR diagnostic for SARS CoV-2. Both would check the box for rapid testing, but so far not for at-home testing, as they would also require laboratory infrastructure to provide results.
If any at-home tests can clear the regulatory hurdles, they would also need to be manufactured on a large scale and be cheap enough to entice people to actually use them. In the world of at-home diagnostics, pregnancy tests have become the sole mainstream victor because they're simple to use, small to carry, easy to interpret, and costs about seven or eight dollars at any ubiquitous store, like Target or Walmart. By comparison, the at-home COVID collection tests that don't even offer diagnostics—you send away your sample to an external lab—all cost over $100 to take just one time.
For the time being, the only available diagnostics for COVID require a lab or an expensive dedicated machine to process. This disconnect could prolong the world's worst health crisis in a century.
"Daily rapid tests have enormous potential to sever transmission chains and create herd effects similar to herd immunity," Mina says. "We all recognize that vaccines and infections can result in herd immunity when something around half of people are no longer susceptible.
"The same thing exists with these tests. These are the intervention to stop the virus. If half of people choose to use these tests every other day, then we can stop transmission faster than a vaccine can. The technology exists, the theory and mathematics back it up, the epidemiology is sound. There is no reason we are not approaching this as strongly as we would be approaching vaccines."
--Additional reporting by Julia Sklar
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.