In the Seattle area, where dozens of people have tested positive for the new coronavirus and hundreds more may be infected and not know it, a new project funded by Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation could soon begin rolling out test kits that people can use at home.
“Although there’s a lot to be worked out, this has enormous potential to turn the tide of the epidemic,” Scott Dowell, who leads the coronavirus response at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told The Seattle Times.
Testing is obviously critical to try to slow the spread of the disease, but it has gone slowly across the U.S. so far. At first, the CDC limited testing only to people who had recently traveled or had contact with a patient known to already have the disease, also known as COVID-19. That meant that public health officials didn’t know whether the virus was spreading to other people in communities. (Even among those who were tested, flaws in early test kits made some results inconclusive.) Doctors have also struggled to test patients because of a shortage of test kits.
At-home tests can help more people get tested—and can also help stop spreading the virus to the people who are most vulnerable. The illness is most dangerous for older adults and people with underlying health conditions; for those over the age of 80, the death rate of confirmed cases so far is 21.9%. For younger people, the illness is often mild, and coming in for a test might mean infecting other patients, or infecting healthcare workers who then might inadvertently end up infecting others or who might have to go into quarantine, straining the healthcare system. Since there’s no treatment for the mild form of the illness, hospitals would rather have people with only mild symptoms stay at home.
The project spun out of the Seattle Flu Study, a Gates-funded project that provided similar at-home tests for the flu, though this will be supported by a different part of the foundation. Gates hasn’t yet announced how soon the new service could launch. In an email to Fast Company, the organization clarified: “Our team has and will continue to actively explore ways that we can contribute to local response through the application of the study. While we’re working quickly with our partners to determine what’s possible, details of this support have not yet been finalized.”
If it does get off the ground, anyone who’s sick in the Seattle area will be able to answer a few questions online to determine if they qualify for the test, and if they do, a test will be delivered within two hours. After the patient swabs their nose, the sample will be picked up and taken to a lab at the University of Washington for analysis and results within two days. For those who are infected, the project will use online forms to track who they’ve been in contact with who may also need to be tested or quarantined. When it begins, the project will have the capacity to run around 400 tests per day; that will later increase to thousands of tests each day.