Eyes on the prize: Testing to end the coronavirus lockdown

The design for the U.S. Capitol in 1792. Canned food in 1809. Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 1927. Different centuries, different fields of study, but these groundbreaking innovations share one common thread: they were invented in response to national prize competitions. The battle against the novel coronavirus is no different – with the right incentives, American innovation will triumph again.

We are at a critical point in our fight against the coronavirus and COVID-19, a struggle that has slowed our economy to a standstill as we guard against infection via mass lockdown. There is bipartisan agreement that the way out—the only way to regaining confidence that it is safe to return to work—is through testing. There is broad consensus that we can scale up to offer those tests in massive quantities. While the U.S. recently reached the encouraging milestone of three million tests per week, there’s more work to be done to meet expert calls for 25 million per day. Agreement on the problem is a promising first step; what we need now is a solution that offers speed and scale. We propose that solution is the same one that incentivized reliable food and commercial flights: a federal prize competition.

Producing more tests that yield results faster and more accurately has proved elusive thus far. Offering a federal prize solves a critical part of that problem: laboratories lack the incentive and the funds for research and development of a rapid diagnostic test that will, in the best-case scenario, be rendered virtually unnecessary in a year.

We’ve also overlooked a critical source of testing capacity in our nation’s academic institutions. These are paradigms of American innovation and brainpower, with the established trust and credibility needed to jump right into test development. We need to expand the pool of talent to include these university labs by providing them an incentive to develop fast, accurate, point-of-care tests. In many cases, these labs are already working on the kind of breakthroughs we need: machines that can run multiple tests at once, antigen tests that can turn around results in minutes, and methods that circumvent reagent and swab supply bottlenecks.

The precedent for federal competitions is clear, especially in the fields of science and research. The COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 and the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2017 have resulted in the creation of robocall-blocking technology, cost-effective clean water systems, even virtual reality training for first responders. We believe in the ability of the American scientific community and economy to respond to the challenge presented by the coronavirus. Congress just has to give them the incentive.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have already begun a similar strategy with their $1.4 billion “shark tank,” awarding speedy regulatory approval to five companies that can produce these tests. Expanding the concept to academic labs through a National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST)-sponsored competition has the added benefit ultimately funding more groundbreaking research once the prize money has been awarded.

With a federal competition in place, offering a prize for the development of point-of-care tests that can deliver accurate results in minutes, we can move on to the important, difficult task of reopening the American economy. A massive volume of rapid-result tests will be required to not only ensure the health of our workforce, but to instill the necessary confidence that it is safe to return to normalcy. Testing allows us to pinpoint those who are infected and must isolate, while lifting lockdown for those who are uncompromised. Another prize competition focused on scaling up capacity to millions of tests per day will accelerate our return and establish a critical advantage when, inevitably, we face a pandemic like this again.

The coronavirus has halted our economy and added uncertainty to our daily lives, but it is no match for the engine of talent that makes America a global leader in innovation. A federal prize competition is a simple, actionable step that Congress can take right now to fast-track development of the tests we need to beat this virus and prepare for future pathogens. We’re betting that the U.S. scientific community is up to the challenge, and the odds are in our favor.

Don Beyer represents Virginia’s 8th District, Anthony Gonzalez represents Ohio’s 16th District and is a member of the President’s Congressional Task Force for coronavirus, and Paul Romer is 2018 Nobel Laureate for Economics.

Tags Anthony Gonzalez Coronavirus COVID-19

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