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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

New coronavirus diagnostics could eventually enable near-constant testing — and herald a future where even common infections no longer go undiagnosed.

Why it matters: Rapid testing could be especially important during the winter, when it will become vital to quickly distinguish between an ordinary cold or flu and a new disease like COVID-19.

What's happening: New testing technologies are being developed that, while not always as accurate as the PCR tests currently in use, can be done cheaply and quickly, at an accelerated rate that "matches the kinetics of the virus," says Jeff Huber, vice chairman of the cancer diagnostics company Grail and the science lead for the XPRIZE Foundation's $5 million rapid COVID testing contest.

  • University of Illinois researcher Martin Burke has created a rapid saliva-based test that has received emergency authorization from the FDA. That will help the university reach its goal of testing all 50,000 students and staff on campus twice a week — frequent enough to catch infected people before they can significantly spread the virus.
  • Researchers at Yale University have received emergency authorization for a similar saliva-based diagnostic that was tested on NBA players and can produce results within hours, at just $10 a sample.
  • Mammoth Biosciences last month received backing from the National Institutes of Health to scale up its CRISPR-based diagnostic in an effort to increase testing capacities at commercial labs. The company is also working on a CRISPR-based handheld, disposable test that can produce results in 20 minutes."
  • A Princeton University spinout called NeuTigers has developed an AI-powered diagnostic that identifies COVID-19 infections using health data from wearable devices like smartwatches. "You don't need nasal swabs or PCR," says Greg Nicola, chief medical officer at NeuTigers. "Just a device with a sensor."

The key is speed and frequency. Modeling done during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa found that if 60 percent of new Ebola cases had been detected within a day of patients becoming infectious — using rapid tests — the epidemic could have been immediately stopped.

  • "What makes COVID-19 so challenging is two things," says Huber. "Asymptomatic and presymptomatic spreading, and the possibility of super spreaders" — infected people who for some reason spark huge outbreaks."
  • Simply screening for symptoms is insufficient because too many people are able to spread the coronavirus without showing clear symptoms. Rapid tests can solve that problem and ensure potential super-spreaders are taken out of circulation before they begin super-spreading.

What's next: The burst of innovation around disease diagnostics — as well as the growth of at-home health tracking devices — could lay the groundwork for a range of tests that rapidly detect infections of all kind, says Jack Regan, the CEO of the molecular diagnostics company LexaGene.

The catch: Testing populations twice a week or more would require a massive leap in current capacity. As of Aug. 20, the U.S. had performed fewer than 70 million tests throughout the entire pandemic — not even enough to test a quarter of Americans once.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that the NIH was funding Mammoth's work on a hand-held coronavirus test that uses CRISPR. Instead, the NIH is funding CRISPR technology that can help improve capacity at commercial labs, while Mammoth is also separately working on a CRISPR-based handheld test.

Go deeper

Nov 29, 2020 - Sports

Broncos and 49ers the latest NFL teams impacted by coronavirus crisis

From left, Denver Broncos quarterbacks Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Jeff Driskel during an August training session at UCHealth Training Center in Englewood, Colorado. Photo: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the NFL season into chaos, with all Denver Broncos quarterbacks sidelined, the San Francisco 49ers left without a home or practice ground, and much of the Baltimore Ravens team unavailable, per AP.

Driving the news: The Broncos confirmed in a statement Saturday night that quarterbacks Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles were identified as "high-risk COVID-19 close contacts" and will follow the NFL's mandatory five-day quarantine, making them ineligible for Sunday's game against New Orleans.

Nov 29, 2020 - Health

Fauci warns Thanksgiving travel will likely make COVID-19 surge worse

NIAID director Anthony Fauci warned on Sunday that the U.S. could see in the coming weeks "a surge superimposed upon that surge that we're already in," as COVID-19 cases are expected to rise after many Americans traveled for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Why it matters: Cases and hospitalizations are already skyrocketing nationwide. Governors and health departments in some states have warned that the increase in cases could overwhelm hospital systems.

Nov 29, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Colorado governor and partner test positive for coronavirus

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) tweeted Saturday night that he and his partner, Marlon Reis, tested positive for COVID-19.

The big picture: He said they're both "asymptomatic, feeling well, and will continue to isolate at home." On Nov. 9, Polis extended a 30-day mask mandate to combat a rise in cases. The state has confirmed 225,283 coronavirus infections since the pandemic began. Since September, the governors of Wyoming, Nevada, Virginia and Missouri have also tested positive for the virus.