Inside the high-stakes race to test Covid testing

The researchers also assessed the usability of each product. “You want to make sure nothing requires too much force, make sure it’s easy to grip, easy to grab,” said Sarah Farmer, general manager of Georgia Tech’s HomeLab. “Let’s simplify it as much as possible, reduce the steps as much as possible.”

Maxim Biomedical, a Maryland-based company that makes a rapid antigen test, added a test-tube holder after researchers noticed users couldn’t put the liquid-filled round-bottom tube on a table. “Their data was a big part of our development and optimization of the test,” said Jonathan Maa, the company’s chief operating officer. (The company hopes to use what it learns to design other user-friendly tests, he said.)

To identify tests that could be scaled up quickly, the researchers also assessed the “technology readiness” of each test. Some otherwise promising breath-based devices have performed poorly on this measure. “When we looked at them, they really weren’t mature enough to be successful,” Dr. Martin said.

They also separated each test to check for possible manufacturing issues. Some products looked sloppy, with parts stuck together, while others were too complex to be produced in millions. “We’ve seen tests that tried to squeeze the whole lab down, basically, into a very, very small form factor,” Dr. Brand said. “From a technical point of view, incredible.” But, he added, “you can’t do that on a large scale.”

Companies have often adjusted their products in response to reports from scientists. The Atlanta team frequently “gave companies the key feedback that allowed them to change their platforms and make them really successful,” Dr. Tromberg said.

By the end of 2020, several tests that had survived the Atlanta gauntlet had been cleared by the FDA, including the first over-the-counter home Covid test, performed by Australian company Ellume.

“We thought we were done,” Dr. Lam said. Then the Alpha variant took off: “We had to restart.”

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