US considering rapid-fire scientific vetting for virus tests

With August goal in mind, diagnostic development could get TV-based model

May 7, 2020
Medical student in research lab
Source: iStock

The Trump administration is proposing to remedy the nation’s critical deficit in coronavirus-testing technologies by subjecting scientists to a reality-TV show format with a rapid-fire ethos.

The plan is modelled in part on Shark Tank, a programme in which a panel of wealthy investors make quick funding decisions based on brief and sometimes contentious encounters with budding entrepreneurs.

Winners, said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will share some $500 million (£400 million) in federal funding “to help advance the most promising testing technologies”.

The administration and their Republican allies in Congress have been pressing the idea as the US struggles with a lack of reliable testing options for the Covid-19 virus that is seen as a critical barrier to any substantial resumption of normal daily activities – including the reopening of businesses and schools.

NIH officials explained that the Shark Tank label was a shorthand for a process already being used at five university-based centres − known as the Point-of-Care Technologies Research Network, or POCTRN − that review and help to accelerate advances in medical devices and tools.

The lead centre is at Harvard University, with others at Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, the University of Massachusetts and an Atlanta partnership of Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The Shark Tank analogy does not strictly apply with regard to the TV show’s shoot-from-the-hip style, said Bruce Tromberg, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, an NIH division known as NIBIB.

But a rapid pace of reviews, rejections and approvals will be a focal point, Dr Tromberg said, with the five centres aiming to process far more applications in a few months than they typically do in a year.

Already, more than 1,000 people have requested applications through the initiative, known as the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics, or RADx, and about 100 have submitted their proposals, Dr Tromberg said.

“In 27 years at the NIH,” Dr Collins told a Senate hearing on RADx, “I have honestly never seen anything move this quickly.”

The initiative is seeking scientific advances in methods of detecting the virus, as well as technical improvements in any part of the necessary processes, such as ways of drawing samples, sharing results and creating essential chemicals and materials.

As with the usual work of the POCTRN network in assessing medical innovations worthy of federal investment, about half of the applications so far with RADx are coming from academic scientists, Dr Tromberg said.

The initiative is being driven largely by the Trump administration and congressional Republicans, who now see August as a critical deadline for creating enough tests, in part because of back-to-school timelines.

They include Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of a Senate committee that handles education issues, and a former president of the University of Tennessee system. The Republican lawmaker told the hearing that the chancellor of the university’s flagship campus at Knoxville, Donde Plowman, had reinforced for him by phone the critical importance of developing large-scale testing capabilities by August.

But Dr Collins, asked by Mr Alexander for a commitment on that timeline, said only that the NIH was trying as hard as it could to meet it.

“I have encountered some stunned expressions when describing these goals and these timetables to some people,” Dr Collins said of the RADx initiative.

Some university-based researchers, meanwhile, expressed wariness of any Shark Tank-style approach while awaiting more details of what it will look like.

Steven Salzberg, a professor of medicine, biostatistics and computer science at Johns Hopkins, said he had never seen the show but hoped that the speed of RADx would not favour flashy presentations and grand claims over scientific rigour.

Such a style also could favour men, raising the possibility of gender-based bias, Professor Salzberg told Times Higher Education.

At the Senate hearing, one senator, Jacky Rosen, a Democrat of Nevada, told Dr Collins that a Shark Tank-style competition might discourage cooperation in the hunt for new testing technologies at a time when teamwork is badly needed.

Dr Collins acknowledged the concern and conceded that some private-sector participants might see incentives to keep findings to themselves. But the experts assessing the proposals also have industry connections that could be helpful, he said.

“We’ll watch for that closely,” Dr Collins said of the possible emergence of mercenary behaviours. “We are going to do our darndest not to let that happen.”

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