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Cosmic Science

XPRIZE organizes $5M challenge for COVID-19 tests

The nonprofit XPRIZE foundation has assembled a high-powered coalition to take on a high-priority problem: developing high-quality screening tests for COVID-19 that are low-cost and easy to use with a fast turnaround time.

The $5 million XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing competition is the latest project from the folks who created multimillion-dollar contests for privately financed spaceships, super-efficient cars and real-life equivalents of Star Trek’s medical tricorders.

Among those voicing support for the testing development effort are:

  • OpenCovidScreen, a nonprofit group that numbers researchers from such institutions as the University of Washington and business leaders from such companies as Illumina among its advisers and collaborators. OpenCovidScreen’s partners include ThermoFisher Scientific, Google, Amazon and Ancestry.com. The group’s president and co-founder is Jeff Huber, a former Google executive and co-founder of Grail, a cancer detection startup.
  • A $50 million fund known as the COVID Apollo Project, backed by investors including RA Capital, Bain Capital, Perceptive Advisors, Redmile Group and Samsara Biocapital.
  • Healthcare companies including Anthem, Blue Shield of California, BlueCross / BlueShield of South Carolina and Cambia Health Solutions.
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said in a statement that he looks forward to “seeing the breakthroughs that arise from this challenge and the countless lives that will be saved as a result.”

Teams can compete in one of four categories, focusing on at-home tests, point-of-care tests, distributed lab tests or high-throughput lab tests. They’ll be asked to develop new tests that produce results within 12 hours of collecting a sample, using minimally invasive procedures.

Winning teams will be required to deploy and conduct a minimum of 500 tests per week at a live testing site within 60 days, and have the potential to scale up their solutions to thousands of tests per week.

Cost of the test should be less than $15, including all materials, with avenues for reducing costs as production is scaled up.

Currently, the cost of COVID-19 testing can range from less than $100 to more than $1,000, depending on healthcare circumstances. What’s more, the turnaround time for test results can extend past a week, due to shortages in supplies and staffing.

“Fast, affordable, and accessible testing is crucial to containing the COVID-19 pandemic and safely reopening schools, businesses and other vital institutions around the world,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said. “XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing is inspiring the best entrepreneurial and scientific teams to come together to work towards rapid, affordable Covid-19 testing at scale, and ultimately, getting the world up and running again.”

Teams must register by Aug. 31, and the XPRIZE timeline calls for tests to be deployed in a pilot round that runs from Nov. 2, 2020, to Jan. 22, 2021. Winners are to be announced by the end of next January, with scaled-up production planned during the months that follow.

The reaction to today’s announcement was mostly positive. “THIS is what we need right now,” Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at the Federation of American Scientists, said in a tweet.

However, the Food and Drug Administration is likely to have the final word on any tests that come out of the competition. And even without the contest, progress is being made on rapid-turnaround COVID-19 tests. There’s a chance that this XPRIZE will be rendered unnecessary before it reaches its climax. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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GeekWire

BlackSky will track COVID-19 impact for Air Force

BlackSky, a satellite data venture with offices in Seattle, says it’s won a U.S. Air Force contract to track the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on military interests worldwide.

The contract calls for BlackSky to monitor U.S. military bases overseas and assess the status of supply chains, using its AI-enabled Spectra geospatial data analysis platform.

Spectra can analyze satellite data as well as news feeds and social media postings to identify anomalies worth following up on with additional imagery or investigation. The data inputs include imagery from BlackSky’s own satellite constellation as well as from other sources.

BlackSky has benefited from Pentagon contracts for years, but this latest project focuses on impacts related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The approach was demonstrated for GeekWire back in May, when BlackSky executives showed how satellite images could be compared to detect an unusual rise or fall in, say, the number of cars parked in a lot outside a given installation. That could point to places where social distancing is decreasing or increasing.

Spectra can also analyze activity at airports, loading docks, maintenance facilities, fuel storage depots and other key installations to assess how supply chains might be affected by pandemic-related bottlenecks.

Such analyses can be compared with reported infection numbers coming from local governments, and integrated into computer models to predict the risk to deployed Air Force personnel and the surrounding communities.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Elon Musk’s COVID-19 tweets get a reality check

Billionaire Elon Musk knows his stuff when it comes to rockets or electric cars. But does that translate into epidemiological expertise? Not completely, according to Washington state’s coronavirus trackers.

Musk weighed in today with a Twitter response to a GeekWire story that focused on Washington’s rising number of COVID-19 cases as well as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Bill Gates sounds the alarm on resurging pandemic

Tech leaders typically use their TED talks to sketch out an optimistic vision of the future, but today Bill Gates used his to warn about a rough autumn ahead due to the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s good progress … but nothing that would fundamentally alter the fact that this fall in the United States could be quite bad, and that’s worse than I would have predicted a month ago,” he told moderator Chris Anderson during a live-streamed TED2020 Q&A.

Although Gates didn’t mention President Donald Trump by name, he faulted a lack of American leadership for making things worse.

“We need leadership in terms of admitting that we’ve still got a huge problem here, and not turning that into almost a political thing,” he said. “You know, ‘Isn’t it brilliant, what we did?’ No, it’s not brilliant. … We need a leader who keeps us up to date, is realistic, and shows us the right behavior as well as driving the innovation track.”

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GeekWire

COVID-19 tracking system extends its reach

As concerns about a resurgence of the coronavirus outbreak are widening, so is the reach of the COVID-19 tracking platform created by Sentinel Healthcare, a Seattle-based medical data startup.

The app-based platform was rolled out three months ago, just as the pandemic was taking hold, and it wasn’t long before it was picked up by UT Health Austin in Texas to keep track of the symptoms of quarantined patients.

“We’ve now contact-traced and diagnosed many, many patients,” said Sentinel Healthcare CEO Nirav Shah, a neurologist and the former stroke director at Swedish Hospital in Seattle.

As of this week, about 1,600 of the app’s users in Texas have been diagnosed with COVID-19, triggering contact tracing for more than 4,000 people, Shah told GeekWire.

Shah said Sentinel Monitor started registering a spike in the number of cases being diagnosed about two weeks ago. “That ended up being borne out,” he said. “Looking back over the past 10 days … we’ve seen almost a tripling or quadrupling of daily case counts.”

Now Sentinel will be putting its platform to the test closer to home.

Today the company announced a partnership with Era Living, which runs eight retirement communities in the Seattle area. Sentinel will support Era Living in testing and monitoring its more than 900 employees and 1,300 residents for COVID-19. Seattle-based Transpara Health will provide logistical and operational support.

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GeekWire

COVID projections suggest masks could save lives

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has added mask-on and mask-off options to its computer-based projections for the course of the coronavirus pandemic — and estimates that 33,000 lives could be saved in the U.S. between now and October if masks are required.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Hydroxychloroquine clinical trial halted

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has shut down a clinical trial to see if a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin can prevent hospitalization and death due to COVID-19.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Allen Family Foundation donates to COVID-19 causes

WA Food Fund at work
The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation donated $1 million to the WA Food Fund, a statewide food relief program. (WA Food Fund / Philanthropy Northwest Photo)

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation announced two contributions to support people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in Washington state, adding up to $2.2 million.

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GeekWire

Mars rover carries monument to COVID-19 medics

Plate on Mars rover
An engineer attaches a plaque paying tribute to medical workers on the chassis of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is due for launch to Mars as early as next month. (NASA via YouTube)

When NASA’s Perseverance rover lands in Mars’ Jezero Crater next February, it’ll be carrying a tribute to the medical community and their work to quell the coronavirus pandemic.

A 3-by-5-inch aluminum plaque, showing planet Earth being supported by the ancient staff-and-serpent symbol of the medical profession, will grace the left side of the rover chassis.

Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the plaque recognizes the sacrifices that have been made by medical workers — and also by members of the mission team, who had to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the $2.4 billion project on track for launch as early as July 20.

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GeekWire

A call for earlier testing and treatment for COVID-19

Home testing
The Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network relies on at-home sample collection from a wide spectrum of Seattle-area residents. (Photo via SCAN / Seattle-King County Public Health)

Scientists from Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington say the search for COVID-19 treatments should widen its focus from hospitalized patients to people who are just starting to experience symptoms.

They’re calling for a shift in strategy in an article published in Open Forum Infectious Diseases. “A golden opportunity to intervene early is being missed,” they write.

There’s already been some success in the hunt for drugs that can treat COVID-19. Preliminary results suggest that an experimental antiviral drug called remdesivir can reduce the recovery time for hospitalized patients, while a low-cost steroid known as dexamethasone can reduce the death rate among patients who experience respiratory distress.

But the researchers from the Seattle area, which was ground zero for America’s coronavirus outbreak, say the hunt should be expanded beyond hospitals.

Get the full story on GeekWire.