Bill Gates has been emphasizing the need for more COVID-19 testing, and now he is funding at-home tests. However, there is a catch. For now, the at-home COVID-19 testing program is only available in the Seattle area. There’s no word yet on if or when the program or others like it will be expanded to cover other parts of the country.
At-home COVID-19 testing by Bill Gates
Bill Gates talked about the at-home COVID-19 testing program on his blog. The Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network, also known as SCAN, is the first surveillance platform for COVID-19. Participants in the program can swab the inside of their nose and send it to a lab without having to leave home.
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The program isn't aimed at testing everyone in the Seattle area. It also isn't meant to serve as a replacement for medical care. The at-home COVID-19 testing program aims to test a sample of people in the region, including both people who are showing symptoms and some who don't.
Researchers, public health officials and data modelers will use the information from the rest results and other data like their age, race, gender and underlying health problems. The program will help them better understand how the coronavirus is spreading through the area, who faces the highest risk of catching it and whether social distancing is helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.
No replacement for widespread testing
The at-home COVID-19 testing program funded by Bill Gates should help researchers get an idea of how many people without symptoms might be infected with the virus. The issue is that most tests have been reserved for those with symptoms. As a result, public health officials have no idea how many people have really been infected with the virus.
Gates said the Seattle program will not replace the widespread testing that still is required in U.S. communities. However, he said it could be an important tool to help public health officials understand the behavior and spread of the virus.
Early results from the program identified many causes of the coronavirus that otherwise would have gone undetected. Some of those who have been identified as having the virus had some symptoms but hadn't yet sought medical care.
Why is there a shortage of COVID-19 testing kits?
The Trump administration now plans to spend billions of dollars to increase testing for the coronavirus across all 50 states. The entire country has been struggling to test people widely enough. However, NPR reports that the problem isn't a shortage of COVID-19 testing kits. Many labs say they have plenty of kits, but there is a shortage of one key piece.
Every COVID-19 test requires several steps that require various supplies. Health officials are experiencing shortages of different supplies in different places at different times. One big part of the testing process that healthcare personnel frequently come up short of is swabs. Apparently, the federal government didn't ramp production of swabs until late April despite warnings as early as February.
The swabs that are used for COVID-19 testing are more than just a basic Q-tip. They are specialized pieces called nasopharyngeal swabs, and they're considered medical devices. They are long enough and flexible enough to reach to the back of the throat through the nose. When the coronavirus hit, there were only two major manufacturers of the swabs in the world, so they were quickly overwhelmed with demand.
The swab test looks for active infections, but there is one other test available. The anti-body test requires healthcare personnel to draw blood. The presence of anti-bodies indicates that the patient had the virus previously, but they may not have an active infection.
The swab test involves swabbing the nose or throat. Medical personnel then put the swab into what's officially referred to as "viral transport media," which is just a chemical solution that keeps the sample fresh while it's taken to a laboratory. The second step of the test takes place at a lab where researchers use a machine and chemicals to extract genetic material from the sample. Then a machine checks to see if COVID-19 is found in the sample.