Inside the High-Stakes Race to Test the Covid
The researchers also assessed the user-friendliness of each product. “You want to make sure nothing requires a lot of force, make sure it’s easy to grasp, hold,” said Sarah Farmer, managing director of Georgia Tech’s HomeLab. “Let’s streamline it where possible, reduce steps where possible.”
Maxim Biomedical, a Maryland-based company that conducts rapid antigen testing, added a test-tube stand after researchers noticed that users could not set the liquid-filled, round-bottomed tube down on a table. “Their data has played a big role in our development and testing optimization,” said Jonathan Maa, the company’s chief operating officer. (The company hopes to use what it learned to design other consumer-friendly tests, he said.)
To identify tests that could be scaled up quickly, the researchers also assessed the “technology readiness” of each test. Some other promising breathalyzer-based devices performed poorly on this measure. “When we looked at them, they weren’t really mature enough to be successful,” Dr. Martin said.
He took each test apart to look for potential manufacturing problems. Some products seemed slapdash, with pieces glued together, while others were too complex to be produced by millions. Dr. Brand said, “We saw tests that basically tried to shrink the whole lab, down to a very small form factor.” “From an engineering point of view, amazing.” But, he added, “you can’t do it on a large scale.”
Companies often adjust their products in response to the scientists’ reports. The Atlanta team often provided “critical feedback to companies that allowed them to transform their platforms and make them truly successful,” Dr. Tromberg said.
By the end of 2020, several tests that had escaped the Atlanta gauntlet were authorized by the FDA, including the first at-home, over-the-counter COVID test made by Australian company Alum.
“We thought we were done,” Dr. Lam said. Then the alpha version took off: “We had to restart.”
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