The patient tilts back her head and winces as the long swab stick pushes six inches up her nose. The tip twirls around uncomfortably before it's withdrawn.
"Our saliva test can detect the virus in asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases."
A gloved and gowned healthcare worker wearing a face shield and mask tells the patient that she will learn whether she is positive for COVID-19 as soon as the lab can process her test.
This is the typical unpleasant scenario for getting a coronavirus test. But times are rapidly changing: Today, for the first time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared one company to sell saliva collection kits for individuals to use at home.
Scientists at the startup venture, RUCDR Infinite Biologics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, say that saliva testing offers an easier, more useful alternative to the standard nasal swab.
"Our saliva test can detect the virus in asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases," said Dr. Andrew Brooks, chief operating officer at RUCDR.
Another venture, Darwin BioSciences in Colorado, has separately developed an innovative method of testing saliva for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Saliva testing can allow earlier detection to identify people who may not know they are contagious, say scientists at both companies. In addition, because patients spit into a tube or cup, saliva testing is safer for healthcare workers than taking swabs. This frees up scarce personal protective equipment (PPE) for use elsewhere. Nasal swabs themselves have been in scarce supply.
Saliva testing, if it becomes widespread, potentially could mean opening society sooner. The more ubiquitous testing becomes across the population, experts say, the more feasible it becomes for public health officials to trace and isolate contacts, especially of asymptomatic cases. Testing early and often will be essential to containing emerging hot spots before a vast outbreak can take root.
Darwin Biosceiences is preparing to seek an FDA Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) this month for its patented "CoVScreen" testing system, which potentially could be available to labs nationally by mid-summer.
Meanwhile, Infinite Biologics will now begin selling kits to consumers for home collection, upon order by a physician. The FDA said that the company's saliva test was as accurate as the nasal swab method used by health care professionals. An FDA summary documenting the company's data reported: "There was 100% positive and negative agreement between the results obtained from testing of saliva and those obtained from nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal swabs."
The greatest scientific advantage, said Dr. Brooks, is that nasal and oral swabs only collect the surface area where the swab goes, which may not be the place with most viral load. In contrast, the virus occurs throughout a saliva sample, so the test is more trustworthy.
The lab at Rutgers can process 20,000 tests a day, with a 48-hour turnaround. They have 75,000 tests ready to ship now.
The Leap: Detecting Sickness Before You Feel It
"We wanted to create a device that could detect infections before symptoms appeared," explained Nicholas Meyerson, co-founder and CEO of Darwin.
For more than 300 years, he said, "the thermometer was the gold standard for detecting disease because we thought the first sign of illness was a fever. This COVID-19 pandemic has proven that not all pathogens cause a fever. You can be highly contagious without knowing it."
"The question is whether we can scale up fast enough to meet the need. I believe saliva testing can help."
Therefore, Meyerson and co-founder Sara Sawyer from the University of Colorado began to identify RNA biomarkers that can sense when a pathogen first enters a molecule and "sets off alarms." They focused on the nucleic acids concentrated in saliva as the best and easiest place to collect samples for testing.
"The isothermal reaction in saliva takes place at body or room temperature," he said, "so there's no need for complicated testing machinery. The chemical reaction can be read out on a paper strip, like a pregnancy test -- two stripes if you're sick, and one stripe if you're okay."
Before the pandemic, limited but successful human trials were already underway at CU in Boulder and at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus east of Denver. "This was our proof of concept," he said.
Darwin was founded in March and has secured enough venture capital to concentrate protype development on detecting the virus causing COVID-19. So far, said Meyerson, "Everything works."
A small double-blind test of 30 samples at CU produced 100 percent accuracy. "I'm not sure if that will hold true as we go into clinical trials," he said, "but I'm confident we will satisfy all the requirements for at least 95 percent clinical validation."
The specific "CoVStick" test strips will roll out soon, he said: "We hope before the second wave of the pandemic hits."
The broader saliva test-strip product from Darwin, "SickStick," is still one to two years away from deployment by the military and introduction into the consumer drugstore market for home use, said Meyerson. It will affordably and quickly detect a range of viral and bacterial infections.
An illustration of the "CoVStick."
A Potential Game Changer
Society needs widespread testing daily, said George Church, founding core faculty of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. Speaking at an online SynBioBeta webinar in April, he urged developing stockpiles of testing kits for home use.
As for any potential of false positives, Church said a much bigger risk is not having enough tests.
"Saliva testing is going to speed up the timeline for opening society a lot," said Meyerson. "People need to self-collect samples at home. A lot more people are going to be willing to spit into a tube than to push a swab six inches up their own nose."
Brooks, of Rutgers, addressed the big picture. "It's critical that we open society as soon as possible to minimize the economic impact of the pandemic. Testing is the surest and safest path. The question is whether we can scale up fast enough to meet the need. I believe saliva testing can help."
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 competition 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.