3M (MMM) is expanding its response to the coronavirus outbreak by partnering with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop a coronavirus antigen test that shortens the turnaround time of results, the two jointly announced on Tuesday.
The 3M-MIT team-up has support from the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics Tech (RADx Tech) program, which gave the duo Phase 1 approval.
“Our approach is ambitious, but our collective expertise can make a difference for people around the world, so we owe it to ourselves and society to give it our best effort,” said John Banovetz, 3M’s chief technology officer, in a statement.
“The test could be administered at the point-of-care and would not need to be sent to labs for testing.”
But how it exactly will work is unclear. It could be like a pregnancy test, where results should be followed up by a doctor’s visit, where a nasal swab (PCR) test to detect active virus cases would be administered. Antigen tests are designed to simply detect the fragments of a virus, while the PCR test can confirm the virus’s presence, a 3M executive explained to Yahoo Finance.
With increased pressure on the country’s testing capacity in the wake of soaring cases in Sun Belt states, antigen tests are perceived as another tool to help detect cases. The MIT professor working on the project told Yahoo Finance the team of 50 is focused on an accurate, rapid test, and is cognizant of the existing shortages of testing supplies in the country.
“In designing our system, we considered supply chains and known bottlenecks and endeavored to avoid them by making different choices than those made for current tests,” said MIT professor Hadley Sikes.
3M is already a major player in the health care space, and has been ramping up production of N95 masks— which is expected to surpass 50 million per month in July — to become the largest domestic producer of those masks.
‘Still verifying the concept’
Cathy Tarnowski, a senior technical manager at 3M working on the project, told Yahoo Finance the test is still in the concept phase, but anticipates it will be easy to use and highly accurate. However, it’s still unclear which materials are needed, how they will be sourced, and where else in the world these tests will be available.
“We’re still verifying the concept, and so NIH is interested in understanding the supply chain and where they can provide support there,” Tarnowski said. “So we’re still determining the concept and understanding what we need to go into that kit.”
The shift to producing a test in response to the global pandemic was an easy on, since 3M had an existing partnership with MIT.
Previously, Sikes and her team were working on paper-based diagnostic test with 3M, and alerted the company they were pivoting to develop a test for the coronavirus response when the pandemic hit.
The manufacturing giant got on board, knowing it was an easier endeavor to tackle an antigen rather than an antibody test, Tarnowski explained.
Now, a team of 50 is on the case.
Paper-based diagnostic testing has been sought after as a solution to high-cost lab equipment that can be harder to obtain and use in the developing world to detect various diseases. This also means it is easy to mass-produce — which is what 3M anticipates being able to do.
Whether or not the antigen test could be used at home, like a pregnancy test, or if it will need the oversight of a medical professional has yet to be determined, Tarnowski said. However, 3M expects it will reduce turnaround time for results, and is preparing accordingly.
But antigen tests are less reliable than PCR tests, according to many experts. Sikes acknowledged as much, but added that it does still help relieve the burden on other test types.
“Usually, the cases they detect as positive are, in fact, reliably positive. These cases may not need to be confirmed with an RNA test, which would ease the burden, particularly in hot spots that have high percentage-positive test rates,” Sikes explained.
But if it shows negative, that is when a follow-up is going to be needed, she said.
While no timeline has been set for the production of the test, the partners are working on a four to eight week timeline with NIH, according to Tarnowski. The goal would be to receive an emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) once the test has been validated.
Whether or not the federal government will take on the role of distributing the tests, as it will be doing with vaccines, is unclear. However, Tarnowski indicated the test would likely be available globally once developed.
“I think our focus right now is just making sure we have a great test that gives accurate results,” she said. “And, if we would be looking to meet needs all over the world— how we do that can be done in a variety of ways.”
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