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‘Shark tank’ competition for new virus tests draws strong interest

'The game is on,' National Institutes of Health director says as applications surge

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins listens during a Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on new coronavirus tests on Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins listens during a Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on new coronavirus tests on Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool) ()

A rapid contest aimed at accelerating new testing technologies for COVID-19 prompted the start of more than 1,000 applications in just eight days as of noon Wednesday, with 79 applications completed.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said he was “delighted and somewhat astounded” at the volume since the initiative was announced April 29.

“In 27 years at NIH, I have honestly never seen anything move this quickly,” he told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Thursday.

“The expert review team already in place has identified 20 of these completed applications that are ready to move into that first phase of intense scrutiny and the game is on,” he continued. “And it’s going to be a wild ride.”

Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Missouri Republican Roy Blunt championed a provision in the most recent coronavirus aid package to create a “shark tank” style competition accelerating promising new testing technologies.

Developers can win grants of up to $500 million under the conditions of​ the $1.5 billion National Institutes of Health initiative. Finalists will be matched with business and manufacturing partners, with a goal of distributing millions of new rapid tests by the end of summer or early fall.

“All roads back to work and back to school lead through testing,” Alexander said in his opening remarks.

The U.S. is now conducting around 1.8 million tests per week, according to the COVID Tracking Project. But some experts project the country could need the ability to run millions more per day, with one estimate suggesting as many as 35 million per day, to safely relax economic restrictions. Testing efforts have been hampered by shortages in swabs and chemical reagents used to analyze collected specimens.

Collins also announced the RADx initiative, as it’s called, will include a component for a demonstration project to implement testing in vulnerable and underrepresented communities. Federal and state officials are trying to increase data collection about how the virus is affecting different demographic groups as evidence mounts that minorities are disproportionately vulnerable.

Ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., chastised the administration for lacking a detailed national testing strategy, noting that new technologies won’t matter without an accompanying implementation plan. A provision authored by Murray in that latest aid package requires the administration to submit a testing strategy to Congress by May 24.

“You can innovate the fastest car in the world — it still won’t get you to where you’re going without a good driver and good directions,” she said in her opening remarks. “And when it comes to testing, this administration has had no map, and no one at the wheel.”

Whistleblower complaint

Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority Deputy Assistant Secretary and acting Director Gary Disbrow, who joined Collins in testifying, declined to answer questions about his ousted predecessor, Rick Bright.

Bright filed an 89-page whistleblower complaint with the Office of the Special Counsel on Tuesday, alleging senior leaders ignored warnings about shortages of N95 masks and pressured him to promote a malaria drug with unproven effects on COVID-19. The drug, hydroxychloroquine, was a favorite of President Donald Trump’s until recently, when promising evidence of antiviral drug remdesivir for seriously ill patients emerged.

Bright also alleges that Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec pressured him to award contracts to companies Kadlec favored. Bright said he can demonstrate his demotion was an act of retaliation.

HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said Bright was transferred to work on testing, which is “critical to combatting COVID-19,” and that HHS officials “are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work.”

Disbrow attempted to reassure Democrats that all BARDA contracts undergo proper review.

“I do think it’s important,” he said when Connecticut Democrat Christopher S. Murphy asked if he thought the allegations should be looked into. “I’m sure there will be an investigation.”

Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., is planning to hold a hearing with Bright next week. Trump contends he doesn’t know Bright but on Wednesday called him a “disgruntled guy.”

John Thune of South Dakota, the number two Republican in the Senate, told reporters Wednesday that he would be fine with Bright testifying to the chamber.

“I think that the statute is there for a reason and we’ll take it seriously,” he said. “Where a complaint like that goes probably depends on the seriousness of it, and that’s something I think oversight committees up here have every right to examine.”

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