We’re facing unprecedented times as we gear up to confront the reality of COVID-19, both on the economy and within the healthcare system. As cases continue to rise, sorting through misinformation on the virus has become more vital than ever. Fortunately, the healthtech and healthcare industries have never been ones to stand immobile or on the sidelines when the public’s health is at risk. With each passing day, great steps have been made to better inform the public of actionable recommendations they can make to combat the growing COVID-19 crisis, including a passionate movement to increase efforts on the current and most significant challenge: production and distribution of clinically valid diagnostic tests.
And with the current climate, anxiety and trepidation abound showing an uptick in claims surrounding the coronavirus pathogen. There is no more prevalent time for rapid dissemination of scientifically valid research to help educate and appease the public than now. With more people staying at home and practicing “social distancing,” the market has become a flooded landscape of companies either suffering or taking advantage of nervous individuals. Although there is an opportunity to help stabilize the health market, the greatest potential is in partnering tech with patient care to promote evidence-based information and valid actionable recommendations to the many facing the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first step is understanding which are some of the most reliable resources available – which include more than constantly refreshing the CDC website – in fact, the CDC provides a variety of webinars to address updates for private sector partners, including frequently asked questions about the virus.
In addition, several credible sites ranging from OSHA to the New York Department of Health are regularly updated, sharing protective tips and FAQs. If you’ve recently reviewed the USDA’s response or visited the WHO’s website, you’ll find similar levels of information. But as the government continues to struggle over the shortage of diagnostic tests and the stresses facing the healthcare system, new opportunities are emerging.
How Healthcare and Healthtech Companies Have Risen to the Challenge
The healthcare and healthtech industries have responded to the call for increased action to combat COVID-19 across various fronts. This has taken the form of amplified production of kits, reagents and supplies, therapies, and preventative-care products. We’ve seen many companies rise to the occasion to address the severity of gaps in COVID-19 preparations.
Test Kit Suppliers
Building a health product responsibly takes careful orchestration between medical, commercial and regulatory teams and can often take years for commercialization and scale. However in response to the crisis, the FDA has expedited the process to approve new COVID-19 kits under the new Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) guidelines. This has allowed a number of health companies to quickly mobilize and create tests that have made it to market in a matter of weeks
The severity of the situation has since been emphasized as the CDC has announced the allowance of commercial testing facilities to develop and distribute COVID-19 tests as of February 29th – with companies like Thermo Fisher offering state-of-the-art pathogen detection kits for both real-time PCR and Applied Biosystems QuantStudio 5 assay systems. As the CDC has repeatedly announced their challenges in improving the availability of tests, Thermo Fisher’s increased production is alleviating the scarcity in kit supplies.
Several other companies have also developed current COVID-19 test kits and begun making them more accessible to meet the growing and urgent demand. Their quick response has steadily reduced kit shortages. This list of companies grows each day and includes:
- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- New York State Department of Health
- Quest Diagnostics
- GenMark Diagnostics
- DiaSorin Molecular
- Primerdesign Ltd
In recent weeks, Cepheid has released a COVID-19 test with an analysis 4x faster than standard kits with an improved 45 minute turnaround. Their test, now available, has been primarily distributed to hospitals first.
As the COVID-19 crisis has grown, demand for reagents and testing supplies has surged. Fortunately, companies such as Promega manufacturers have answered the call of the CDC in improving access to critical components needed for diagnostic test production. Already, Promega has begun accessing their stored inventory and ramping up production of the key materials and reagents necessary for meeting the demand of diagnostic tests. Their focus has meant fulfilling much-needed orders by adding additional work shifts, paying overtime, and even diverting work on other projects to prioritize COVID-19 efforts. Reagent supplied Qiagen has also joined its ranks, aiming to increase its contribution 4-fold.
Monitoring and Screening
In an effort to better monitor changes in COVID-19 progression, technology companies such as Alibaba have developed open-source platforms that update in real-time. They’re joined by other platforms supported by Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Global Dashboard and Bing’s COVID-19 Tracker. With the private sector quickly responding to the gaps by the public sector, we’re seeing market-driven innovation that’s improving the general public’s access to reliable information.
For example, a quick review of commonly searched keywords shows an increase in symptom checks, adding to the current pitfalls in amatuer diagnostics. However, leading innovators like Buoy Health have worked to develop a systematic online screening tool that rapidly assesses symptoms related to COVID-19, alongside the Cleveland Clinic’s. Their tool arrived shortly ahead of Apple’s symptom triage tool, featuring a CDC-approved symptom flow within Siri voice assistant.
While historically the healthcare world has been slow to adopt telemedicine, the COVID-19 crisis has shone a light on the benefits of remote medicine during contagious pandemics. Telemedicine has now become a key tool enabling the public to maintain social distancing practices while still accessing healthcare. This has been facilitated by the Trump Administration’s initiative to expand CMS’s telehealth accessibility. For individuals looking for online resources, you can also access Doctor on Demand, featuring an online symptom assessment.
Medical Equipment and Supplies
Health and tech companies have also responded to help with delivering preventative measures. With healthcare professionals on the frontlines in our hospitals and doctor’s offices, we’re seeing mass shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE, as large quantities of protective masks have been purchased by the anxious public. Although most low-grade masks work best for those already ill, the N95 respirators and surgical masks shown to protect against airborne particles are in low supply. Earlier this month, Jack Ma of Alibaba has also improved availability and distribution of N95 masks by pledging to send 1.8 million masks to Asia, which has since been expanded to Africa, Europe and the U.S. including protective suits, ventilators and thermometers.
Additionally, to improve funding, Biogen has also donated $10 Million to non-profit organizations working during the crisis, including donating medical equipment to supplies to Partners HealthCare in Massachusetts and local hospitals.
Clinical Trials and Therapeutic Development
Other government efforts to develop treatment options for severe cases have teamed up with pharmaceutical company Roche. Currently, their arthritis drug Actemra has already been in use by Chinese authorities to address COVID-19 cases, however the need for establishing clinical validity is pressing. To tackle the feasibility, the FDA has partnered with Roche to initiate a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 3 clinical trial to study Actemra for patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19 induced pneumonia. This comes on the heels of Japanese drug Favipravir, used to combat the flu, which has been shown to be effective in treatment in both Japan and China after a series of clinical trials with over 340 patients. However, the Japanese health ministry has stated that its efficacy is reduced in severe cases and would require government approval before it can be used to treat COVID-19 cases.
The greatest challenge for potential treatments remains the time necessary for evidence generation to assess the safety and efficacy – though we’ve seen various pharmaceutical companies announcing breakthroughs in their viral research efforts (such as companies like Regeneron, and drugs such as Chloroquine). During this time it can seem like grasping for straws may give the appearance of progress, but devotion to clinical validity is the only way to halt the progression of the viral pathogen. Various companies, such as Benchling, have donated funds and resources to research labs working to develop diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments. Reify Health has also begun offering funding for companies utilizing clinical trials for COVID-19 therapies and treatments.
Healthcare and Healthtech Can Make A Difference Together.
Desperate times call for more collaboration and uniting industries to bring together skills to solve health problems both quickly and responsibly. Despite the urgency health companies feel to bring products to market quickly, it’s important not to take shortcuts in evidence generation so that products are proven to work and are safe. Healthtech companies have the advantage of technology and agility. Healthcare experts understand how to build medically viable products and navigate the regulatory path. The most critical thing a healthtech company can do is engage health industry experts early and often in the process of bringing health products to market.
At MDisrupt, we have over 50 Health Industry experts many of whom are dedicated to offering their time and skills to assisting companies combating the COVID-19 crisis. These include physicians, regulatory and commercialization experts . Most notably a number of pathologists in our network have offered to donate their time to provide CLIA lab medical director services to labs who need assistance. Talk to us, we want to partner with you to contribute to building solutions for this crisis together.