The U.S. has dramatically expanded its capacity to test for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic, but it’s still far from enough.
Public health experts generally agree that widespread access to rapid, affordable tests is the key to safely reopening schools and workplaces. Many communities, though, still have limited access to testing, and slow turnaround allows the virus to spread undetected.
XPRIZE, a nonprofit foundation that designs and hosts competitions to foster technological development, is working to overcome this challenge.
The organization has launched a $5 million contest to accelerate the development of faster, cheaper COVID-19 screenings. Health Care Service Corporation is a founding partner of the XPRIZE Rapid COVID Testing competition, joining several other health insurers to contribute prize money.
“Expanding access to affordable, fast and frequent testing is something that has not been figured out yet,” said Clarita Santos, executive director of community health initiatives at HCSC. “We knew if we became a founding partner of the XPRIZE competition and helped make that happen, it would have a real impact.”
Most COVID-19 tests available to consumers are invasive and costly to produce, and supply chain bottlenecks have made it impossible to produce enough to meet demand. People must often wait a week or more to get results, hobbling efforts to trace and notify others who may have been exposed.
"In order to effectively manage the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to know what the numbers are."
The XPRIZE Rapid COVID Testing competition invites scientists and innovators from around the world to develop COVID-19 tests that are inexpensive to produce and can deliver reliable results within minutes or hours.
Contestants are encouraged to use a variety of technologies for their entries, but each test must give results within 12 hours and cost less than $12 to make. The tests must also be highly accurate and easy to administer — whether they’re intended to be used at home, at the point of care or in labs.
More than 700 teams from 70 countries pre-registered for the contest, and 219 submitted tests that met XPRIZE’s basic criteria. The 20 teams with the most promising solutions will advance to the competition’s final rounds running from November through mid-January.
They’ll need to administer and process 500 screenings per week at a live testing site within 60 days. Plus, they have to demonstrate an ability to scale their product to thousands of tests a week.
Contest winners will be announced in the first quarter of 2021. The $5 million prize can be split up to five ways, creating the potential for multiple winners and increasing the likelihood that more than one rapid, easy-to-use test will be brought to market.
Partnering with XPRIZE to usher in a new generation of COVID-19 tests furthers HCSC’s mission of expanding access to high-quality, affordable health care. HCSC aims to ensure that all communities — regardless of location, income level or demographic makeup — have access to enough testing to resume normal activities safely.
“One of our strengths at HCSC is that we can respond to local needs because we operate in five states,” Santos said. “But we can also respond to broader needs because we’re national in scope.”
Better tests will also help HCSC care managers and other teams learn more about the spread of COVID-19, giving them a more accurate picture of infection rates within the communities they serve.
“In order to effectively manage the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to know what the numbers are,” Santos said. “As part of our commitment to health and wellness, we want to make sure that we have the latest information and understand what’s going on at the ground level.”