Navigating this new era of COVID-19 requires us all to work together with a shared commitment to the health and well-being of our communities. In the health care system, we are witnessing rapid change and experiencing great disruption. Currently, most available COVID-19 tests take several days to obtain, results are expensive, invasive and limited by supply chain issues.
On this episode of HealthChangers, we feature the second episode in a three-part series looking at the role of start-up competitions, pitch-fests and shark-tank-style challenges in advancing health care innovation. We deep-dive into the $6 million, 6-month XPRIZE Rapid COVID Testing Competition, in which teams compete to develop frequent, fast, inexpensive and easy COVID-19 screening solutions. We talked with Cambia Executive Medical Director Dr. Amy Khan, who also served as an advisory board member for the XPRIZE competition.
Kendal Kemery (KK): The Portland Business Journal called this competition a cross between a shark tank and a COVID-19 laboratory. Can you tell us exactly what the XPRIZE competition is and what it's trying to accomplish?
Dr. Amy Khan (AK): Exactly. The XPRIZE is an international competition, which is led by the nonprofit organization XPRIZE, which really seeks technology and innovative solutions, to address some of the world's biggest problems. Now this competition is the XPRIZE COVID Testing Challenge, and it really seeks to provide affordable, accessible, accurate tests for COVID-19 and inform actions as a pathway for us to really get on top of this pandemic.
KK: Dr. Khan, I understand that you were an advisory board member. In that role, did you have any kind of key takeaways about the value of a challenge like this, where people are coming together from all across the industry?
AK: Right. It's a real privilege to join Cambia as one of the founding partners of this XPRIZE competition among others, who have really seen a vision for a global effort to increase access to COVID-19 testing. It's important to understand this virus knows no bounds. We have to be sensitive to the fact that everyone needs access to accurate, timely tests, so we can inform decisions and really stop the spread of this infection. Not just here, but also abroad.
We need to think of a range of tests that are accessible to everyone, everywhere, no matter where you live.
KK: Yeah. I mean, we're even already a year into this pandemic. Now, can you explain why quick testing turnaround times are so important? I know you talked a little bit about accessibility and affordability, but the timing aspect of that, why is that important?
AK: Well, it’s important for a number of reasons. First of all, we've seen several waves of this virus already that have tracked across our states, and we're seeing the third wave decline. As we see that, we're seeing the emergence of viral strains that make it so important for quick turnaround times. It's important to be able to get people back to work, back to school, back to our lives. Knowing what our infection status is, goes a long way so we can make a decision in a timely manner, to either stay home if we've been exposed, or if we are infected, to isolate for an adequate amount of time so that we're not spreading it to other persons who are infected. As we head into the second year of this pandemic, testing couldn't be more important.
KK: And knowing that testing can't be more important, XPRIZE looks to diversify the testing approaches. What's the benefit of having multiple different kinds of tests don't they all do the same thing?
AK: That's a great question. We want to have a wide range of tests in part, because this is a dynamic virus that's already expressed some mutations that changes its characteristics. We know that the type of tests may have an impact on whether or not we're detecting the virus. So, it’s important that we think about how the virus is changing, but in other places, we need to think about resources, staffing, even things like electricity, reagents. We need to think of a range of tests that are accessible to everyone, everywhere, no matter where you live. It really must take into the context, what sort of resources are available for that community.
We will need to have a wide range of approaches to attack that pandemic, as well as a broad range of investigators and scientists, putting on their best and brightest to be able to solve the problems related to those newer pathogens that we'll be heading out in our future.
KK: What excites you when you think about these new testing approaches and the diverse teams behind them?
AK: First off, it's really success and navigating through this pandemic. Not only do we need accurate tests that are affordable, but we need to realize that this isn't the only pandemic we may need to deal with. We know that this virus is changing, but if history repeats itself and it will, there'll be other viruses to confront in the future. So, we will need to have a wide range of approaches to attack that pandemic, as well as a broad range of investigators and scientists, putting on their best and brightest to be able to solve the problems related to those newer pathogens that we'll be heading out in our future.
KK: Either in your personal or professional life, are there any stories that come to mind when you think about someone impacted by the pandemic, and how XPRIZE might make their life easier?
AK: Well, there are a couple stories and one personal one I'd like to share. I have a teenage son who has been greatly impacted by the pandemic. He just started high school this year, but he came with a history in his earlier school years of a serious learning difference, a type of dyslexia that really impacted his ability to stay the course in the classroom. So, as I've thought about him starting a new school, in a way for him, the online versus in-person represented a bit of a challenge, because he had to adapt to that different medium of watching on a screen and really thinking about what the teacher was saying and then working independently. It's sort of worked out for us, because he's been able to get some additional support.
I really feel for those parents who have children who also have children with learning differences, because moving from an in-person setting to a virtual setting, doesn't always accommodate those needs. In particular, the focus that some of these kiddos need to have, the being able to be in the front of the class, perhaps having a little bit of the extra verbal and physical cues that can help a learner who's struggling.
And so, for me personally, I've really felt a tremendous amount of compassion for families that might have several students perhaps, a number of kiddos in their family that might be struggling. I really look forward to the day when we can safely bring our kids back into the classroom, we can protect our teachers so that they can comfortably teach and really allow the kids to get back into an environment that's going to be allow information to be more accessible to them.
KK: That made my heart hurt a little bit. I'm thinking about all the parents who are working and simultaneously teaching, and that's a hard row to hoe. What's the next step after the finalists' announcement and getting these tests available to the public?
AK: Well, the XPRIZE competition kicked off last summer, the summer of 2020. We had an incredible amount of response, 219 teams were selected to be able to conduct blind testing on samples. From those teams, 20 finalists were selected in December of 2020. Now, these finalists had to have their procedures, processes and assays evaluated by a technical team, independent technical teams and had samples split to make sure that everything was objective. That validation step is planned to finish in early February.
The next step is the final judging. It's a two-day judging competition that takes place in mid-February, with the five finalists, the awardees for the COVID-19 testing XPRIZE, to be announced at the end of February. It's an exciting month as we see these finalists have their results validated, have the experts review their processes.
And from there, we're going to have those five finalist teams conduct over a two-month period, a real-time pilot test site. They'll be conducting COVID-19 tests, at least 500 a week, over a two-month period. They'll be able to earn another part of their award, so a total of $1 million for each of the five finalists.
I think what's phenomenal, is that we've brought public and private partnerships together, we've embraced the entire international global community of scientists and innovators to come together.
KK: Wow. That is amazing that these teams are getting funding, they're getting their solutions rolled out, getting scaled nationally. It's amazing to think that folks will be taking these tests later this year. That's very real. Within that, some say that health care has a lot to learn from other industries in terms of incorporating external innovation. What do you see as the benefit of XPRIZE and other collaborative competitions, for improving the uptake of innovation in health care?
AK: Well, it's super encouraging to see the innovation, not only with this XPRIZE competition, but with the others. I think what's phenomenal, is that we've brought public and private partnerships together, we've embraced the entire international global community of scientists and innovators to come together. What it does, is help break down some of the barriers, whether real or perceived that have gotten in the way of this kind of innovation in the past.
So, again, I think what's really exciting as we look forward to not only having these affordable, accurate tests available for a broader community, we can also think about what the future holds in terms of these teams and collaborators working together in the future.
KK: So, here's the big clinching question that overarches this whole series. How do you think competitions like XPRIZE are shaping innovation in health care?
AK: Well, this provides an incredible model of what can be done when we put our heads together. We put our resources together and we acknowledge that ultimately, we are all connected. So, if we just had a solution here, say, in the States, that wouldn't necessarily solve the problem. We need to really understand that there are real issues that we need to embrace across the globe and within communities, recognizing that there are health inequities that are also driving some of the impacts of COVID-19.
So, making sure that we have accessibility for testing, technology, treatment, prevention, or other public health resources, is going to be critical to our success going forward and inform us along the way.
KK: Exactly. It's so important to have testing and treatment options that are really available and work for everyone. Well, you talked about competitions happening like this across all industries. Do you think there's anything that's unique to a competition like this and a personal industry like health care?
AK: I think it's innovative in and of itself. We haven't seen that many examples of where we really worked collaboratively. We've thought about open sharing, we've thought about embracing that public-private partnership, with our sponsorships and the founding partners of this challenge. We've seen all kinds of organizations, companies, industries, coming together to recognize this common goal of making testing available to everyone. We've also seen that through this particular competition, that this will drive success going forward. I'm excited about other areas in health care, whether it be the example of treatment, or what we've already seen in terms of vaccine development, that we'll see that applied to other disease conditions. Things like heart disease, cancer, just the global issues related to adequacy for food, or clean water. That together we can solve these big problems by working alongside each other, and when we really put our resources together to drive some synergy.
There are plenty of opportunities and examples where we could make a difference in how we deliver care and how we support the health of our community members.
KK: Sure, that cooperation. You've talked about public and private partnerships a couple times, and there are some big names attached to this competition. I just wanted to touch on those. Those include Google Health, Amazon, Cambia, and several Blue Cross Blue Shield licensees. Do you think this cooperation between health care and big tech is pointing to a bigger shift in health care?
AK: I do. Health care is ripe for technology and innovation. We've sort of been a little bit of a laggard when it comes to the adoption of a new way to conduct our business. I think this really portends what could really happen in the future, by working together in this different way to solve one big audacious challenge, right? It really lets us know that we can do some other things. Maybe it won't take as much effort. There are plenty of opportunities and examples where we could make a difference in how we deliver care and how we support the health of our community members.
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