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
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chis Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. (The time it takes to charge the car varies depending on the solar power, location, and weather.) Its 40-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competitive in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.
Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.