At the writing of this post, the United States thus far has 1.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and more than 77,000 deaths attributed to the viral infection. The pursuit of an array of vaccines and therapeutics have been at the forefront of daily news reports, and the need for these preventative and remediating treatments requires no introduction. But equally at the forefront of the news cycle—and as critical to recovery from this pandemic—is the absolute requirement for widespread testing capability, even if accomplished by a variety of testing platforms. But what is desperately needed is an affordable, simple, and rapid point-of-care COVID-19 diagnostic that could be performed with a rapid turnaround.
Consider these points:
- An ability to perform daily tests would reduce the spread of COVID-19 by healthcare workers because it would enable clear Go/No-Go decisions by healthcare managers for making rotation decisions and/or inclusion/exclusion of personnel.
- The number of quarantined Americans due to COVID-19 is likely to continue to grow rapidly, and the prescribed duration of isolation is 14 days. These extended quarantine periods are having a drastic effect on the workforce in all sectors, and the economic outcome is likely to be devastating. A diagnostic technology that will enable frequent testing and on-site results would permit quarantined individuals to be tested at intermediate periods, and possibly cleared to return to work much earlier.
- The number of Americans that need to be tested for COVID-19 for the first time is in the many millions, and this number of tests will balloon even further with those that require re-testing. The ability to screen a wider swath of the population will also allow for identification of patients that have no or mild symptoms but are still able to spread the virus and need to be quarantined.
With these points in mind, a recent article in the New York Times highlights the promise of the type of point-of-care diagnostic described above that are being developed in-force by different contingents of scientists in the U.S. and abroad. These nascent technologies are based on the recent but pervasive gene-editing technology, known as CRISPR (the acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”, which are short DNA sequences of bacterial viruses (phages) that are targeted by the antiviral defense systems of bacteria). The fact that CRISPR evolved to function in bacteria as a sort of “viral defense system” has no direct relationship for its development in use to detect COVID-19, but it is a fitting coincidence. There are several different shots on goal being taken to employ CRISPR technology as a COVID-19 diagnostic, and every successful step towards an increasingly distributed, logistically simplified, and technically easier test to perform and gather results is a significant win for all of us.