Inside the High-Stakes Race to Test the Covid Tests

The researchers also rated the usability of each product.

“You want to make sure nothing requires too much force, make sure it’s easy to grab, grab,” said Sarah Farmer, managing director of Georgia Tech’s HomeLab. “Let’s simplify it where possible, shorten the steps where possible.” Maxim Biomedical, a Maryland-based company that makes rapid antigen tests, added a test tube rack after researchers noticed that users were unable to place a liquid-filled round-bottomed tube on a table. “Their data played a big role in our development and optimization of the test,” said Jonathan Maa, the company’s chief operating officer. (The company hopes to use the knowledge gained to develop other consumer-friendly tests, he said.)

To identify tests that can be rapidly scaled up

the researchers also assessed the “technological readiness” of each test. Some promising breath-based devices have performed poorly on this metric. “When we looked at them, they really weren’t mature enough to be successful,” Dr. Martin said. They also disassembled each test to find potential production issues. Some products seemed sloppy, with pieces glued together, while others were too complex to be produced by the millions. “We’ve seen tests that tried to shrink the entire lab, basically to a very, very small form factor,” said Dr. Brand. “From an engineering standpoint, amazing.” But, he added, “you can’t do it to scale.”

Companies often adjusted their products in response to reports from scientists.

The Atlanta team often “provided key feedback to companies that allowed them to change their platforms and make them truly successful,” Dr. Tromberg said.

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

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