PROJO Editorial—My Turn: Patrice Milos, RI Bio Board: Massive testing can help reopen economy

In the face of today’s global health pandemic, we are experiencing a time of tremendous uncertainty. As the former CEO of a molecular diagnostic laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I believe advanced diagnostic technologies are ready to address the challenges we face.

Today, Germany is testing between 360,000 to 500,000 citizens for viral infection weekly — tracking the spread of the coronavirus early. This enables self-quarantine for those who test positive and allows healthy individuals to move back to society.

The German Health Ministry is investing 500 million euros to create a database to link hospitals with labs to provide information. In April, they will begin testing for viral immunity — at a scale of 100,000 people a week.

Here, U.S. communities are still asking, “Who is COVID-19 free? Who has antibodies to protect against the virus?”

These two questions must be answered to move the country past our current crisis. As newspapers report, federal and state public health agencies are struggling to move community testing forward.

Unlike Germany, our federal and state governments have spent the last decade spending on other things than meeting the needs of critically ill patients and setting up comprehensive testing programs.

But, as we have seen over the last few weeks, the federal Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid are able to evaluate and approve new diagnostic testing technologies. These new technologies will produce testing results on-site in less than an hour. Working with these latest diagnostic technologies, we should consider another path forward.

Telluride, Colorado — a tiny mountain ski town of 8,000 people — is working in partnership with private industry, the company United Biomedical, to test and identify individuals with antibodies to the COVID-19 virus. This is because of the generosity of biotech entrepreneurs who spend their time there. If successful, the program has the opportunity to scale to major cities across the United States.

Implementation of massive-scale testing is resource-intensive and our local health agencies are already stretched — securing personal protective equipment, ventilators, dealing with massive supply-chain issues and implementing supplemental-care facilities.

The private, innovative technology sector is ready for testing now. Can we embrace a new testing paradigm — a public-private partnership? Can communities and businesses work together on getting our country open for business once again?

Companies such as Abbott, Cepheid, Qiagen and Bosch Healthcare are ready to begin offering point-of-care technologies to enable rapid, accurate answers for individuals across the globe. If we develop a payment approach where tests are paid for by the public-health systems, private insurers or individuals themselves, we can offer organizations the opportunity to open up testing and identify the well and the sick.

Imagine this new paradigm in Rhode Island: entities such as Amica, CVS, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Brown University, Providence College, the University of Rhode Island, Cambridge Innovation Center and Social Enterprise Greenhouse enable on-site testing for their employees, students, faculty and citizens. Enable every CVS and Walgreens with the ability to test within their stores.

These centers should be aligned with a statewide database and direct access to the Department of Health and a health-care system to support those who test positive for the virus.

This approach positions us all as active players in today’s pandemic as well as pandemics to come.

Let the health-care systems take care of our sick. Let us technology innovators and organizations take responsibility for generating the data to determine who is well and who can be back to work.

Patrice Milos is CEO of Medley Genomics and is chair of the board of directors of RI Bio in Providence.

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