“The administration has said that 40-50 million tests will be available per month by September, enough for widespread testing as Americans go back to school and back to work. Whether there will be enough tests to allow teams to play sports or spectators to watch may depend upon breakthrough concepts being fast tracked at the National Institutes of Health ‘shark tank.’ The more tests, the more sports.” — Senator Lamar Alexander
At a Senate hearing last week on COVID-19, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) asked National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins whether “In the midst of all this depressing news about the virus, will there be enough tests so we can watch some football this fall, or basketball this winter?” Alexander said the answer may depend upon Dr. Collins’ project to find new ways to produce tens of millions of quick, reliable diagnostic tests.
Dr. Collins is heading an effort, nicknamed the “shark tank,” to accelerate development of new tests to determine whether an individual has COVID-19. Alexander and Senate health appropriations subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) worked together on legislation creating the shark tank, officially called the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics Initiative or “RADx.”
“The National Hockey League has announced that it will test every player every day,” Alexander said. “Brown University’s president has said she would like to test every student before they return to campus. Not every team will want to test every player every day or every student. But will there be enough tests to allow widespread and frequent testing of students, workers and athletes in order to give Americans confidence to go back to school, back to work, or to participate on a sports team or to watch a game?
“University of Tennessee Athletics Director, Phillip Fulmer, has told Tennesseans that if ‘you really, really want to see some football, wear a mask.’ But, in addition to wearing masks to contain the disease, it looks to me like we’re going to need a lot more tests to find out who has the disease if we want to see some football this fall, or basketball this winter,” Alexander concluded. “Every road back to school, back to work and to a football or basketball game leads through testing.”
Dr. Collins responded, “We want to see Americans have a chance to have some normal experiences of enjoying life. I do believe this should be possible. What RADx is doing, and I appreciate the strong support from this Congress to make this possible, is to speedily put together these kinds of point of care tests that can be done onsite, can give you a result within an hour, and can tell you immediately whether that person is actually infected with the COVID-19 virus, in which case they can be immediately quarantined. And I think the general sense is for athletic teams, you really need to know that otherwise you’re going to have an outbreak that will wipe out the entire team.”
Alexander followed up, “But your goal is to have these tests available this fall, September? That’s your goal?”
Dr. Collins responded, “That is the goal. The path we are on right now—and again, this is a white-knuckle goal because it’s never been done on anything like this kind of time table before—would be to have an additional 1 million tests per day available for the kind of point-of-care, on the spot testing, that’s very much needed for going back to school, and going back to sports events.”