Abbott sends the SARS-CoV-2 test results directly to patients’ smartphones, which can be displayed to gain entrance into areas requiring proof of COVID-19 testing
There is no greater example that COVID-19 is a major force for change in the clinical laboratory industry than the fact that—though the US federal government pays 50% of the nation’s total annual healthcare spend of $3.5 trillion—it recently spent $760 million to purchase 150 million COVID-19 tests from Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT), an American multinational medical devices and healthcare company headquartered in Abbott Park, Ill., “to expand strategic, evidence-based testing in the United States,” according to the company’s website.
In August, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted an emergency use authorization (EUA) to Abbott for its BinaxNOW portable rapid-response COVID-19 antigen (Ag) test. The credit-card sized test costs $5 and can return clinical laboratory test results in minutes, rather than hours, days, or in some cases, weeks, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported.
The test includes a free smartphone app called NAVICA, which enables those tested to receive their test results directly on their mobile devices—bypassing the patient’s primary care physicians.
According to Abbott’s website, the app “allows people who test negative to get an encrypted temporary digital NAVICA Pass, similar to an airline boarding pass. NAVICA-enabled organizations will be able to verify an individual’s negative COVID-19 test results by scanning the individual’s digital NAVICA Pass to facilitate entry into facilities.”
This feature of Abbott’s new COVID-19 test is a good example of how quickly innovation in the medical laboratory testing profession is bringing new features and new capabilities to the marketplace. By marrying the SARS-CoV-2 test with the NAVICA Pass feature, Abbott hopes to deliver increased value—not just to physicians and their patients—but also to employers with employee screening programs and federal government programs designed to screen federal employees, as well as being used for screening travelers at airports and other transportation hubs.
Abbott appears to be banking that in the future such identification will be required to “enter organizations and other places where people gather,” as the company’s website states.
Testing Limited to CLIA-Certified Clinical Laboratories
An HHS news release announcing the government’s planned distribution of the BinaxNOW tests stated that “Testing will be potentially deployed to schools and to assist with serving other special needs populations.”
In the news release, Alex Azar, HHS Secretary, said, “By strategically distributing 150 million of these tests to where they’re needed most, we can track the virus like never before and protect millions of Americans at risk in especially vulnerable situations.”
Demand for COVID-19 testing has created opportunities for in vitro diagnostics (IVD) companies that can develop and bring tests to market quickly.
Recent issues of Dark Daily’s sister print publication—The Dark Report (TDR)—covered IVD companies’ second quarter (Q2) boom in sales of COVID-19 instruments and tests, while also noting a fall-off in routine clinical laboratory testing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abbott Laboratories saw molecular diagnostics sales increase 241% in Q2 driven by $283 million in sales of COVID-19 testing, while rapid diagnostic COVID-19 testing rose 11% on $180 million in sales in Q2, TDR reported, based on Abbott data.
“There is huge economic incentive for diagnostic companies to develop technologies that can be used to create rapid tests that are cheap to perform,” said Robert Michel, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TDR and Dark Daily. “In this sense, COVID is a major force for change.”
Thus, Abbott is determined to ensure this product launch is successful and that the test works as promised. According to a news release, “In data submitted to the FDA from a clinical study conducted by Abbott with several leading US research universities, the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card demonstrated sensitivity of 97.1% (positive percent agreement) and specificity of 98.5% (negative percent agreement) in patients suspected of COVID-19 by their healthcare provider within the first seven days of symptom onset.”
“The massive scale of this test and app will allow tens of millions of people to have access to rapid and reliable testing,” said Joseph Petrosino, PhD, professor and chairman, Molecular Virology and Microbiology, Baylor College of Medicine, in the Abbott news release. “With lab-based tests, you get excellent sensitivity but might have to wait days or longer to get the results. With a rapid antigen test, you get a result right away, getting infectious people off the streets and into quarantine so they don’t spread the virus.”
Abbott has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in two manufacturing facilities where the tests will be made, John Hackett Jr, PhD, an immunologist and Abbott’s Divisional Vice President Applied Research and Technology, and lead scientist on the BinaxNOW project, told The Atlantic.
“Our nation’s frontline healthcare workers and clinical laboratory personnel have been under siege since the onset of this pandemic,” said Charles Chiu, MD, PhD, professor of Laboratory Medicine at University of California, San Francisco, in the Abbott news release. “The availability of rapid testing for COVID-19 will help support overburdened laboratories, accelerate turnaround times, and greatly expand access to people who need it.”
However, other experts are not so sure. In the Atlantic article, Michael Mina MD, PhD, Assistant Professor Epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, voiced the need to test both asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people. “This is the type of [COVID-19] test we have been waiting for—but may not be the test.”
Nevertheless, the federal government’s investment is significant. Abbott plans to start shipping tens of millions of tests in September and produce 50 million tests per month starting in October, Forbes reported.
Shifting Clinical Laboratory Paradigms
BinaxNOW will be performed without doctors’ orders, in a variety of locations, and results go directly to patients’ smartphone—without a pathologist’s interpretation and medical laboratory report. This is new ground and the impact on non-CLIA labs, and on healthcare in general, is yet to be seen.
Clinical laboratory managers will want to monitor the rise of rapid-response tests that can be easily accessed, conducted, and reported on without physician input.
In the absence of a “gold standard,” researchers are finding a high frequency of false negatives among SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR tests
Serology tests designed to detect antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness have been dogged by well-publicized questions about accuracy. However, researchers also are raising concerns about the accuracy of molecular diagnostics which claim to detect the actual presence of the coronavirus itself.
“A false-positive result mistakenly labels a person infected, with consequences including unnecessary quarantine and contact tracing,” he stated in the news release. “False-negative results are far more consequential, because infected persons who might be asymptomatic may not be isolated and can infect others.”
Woloshin led a team of Dartmouth researchers who analyzed two studies from Wuhan, China, and a literature review by researchers in Europe and South America that indicated diagnostic tests for COVID-19 are frequently generating false negatives. The team published their results in the June 5 New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).
For example, one research team in Wuhan collected samples from 213 hospitalized COVID-19 patients and found that an approved RT-PCR test produced false negatives in 11% of sputum samples, 27% of nasal samples, and 40% of throat samples. Their research was published on the medRxiv preprint server and has not been peer-reviewed.
The literature review Woloshin’s team studied was also published on medRxiv, titled, “False-Negative Results of Initial Rt-PCR Assays for COVID-19: A Systematic Review.” It indicated that the rate of false negatives could be as high as 29%. The authors of the review looked at five studies that had enrolled a total of 957 patients. “The collected evidence has several limitations, including risk of bias issues, high heterogeneity, and concerns about its applicability,” they wrote. “Nonetheless, our findings reinforce the need for repeated testing in patients with suspicion of SARS-Cov-2 infection.”
Doctors also are seeing anecdotal evidence of false negatives. For example, clinicians at UC San Diego Health medical center treated a patient with obvious symptoms of COVID-19, but two tests performed on throat samples were negative. However, a third test, using a sample from a bronchial wash, identified the virus, reported Medscape.
Sensitivity and Specificity of COVID-19 Clinical Laboratory Tests
The key measures of test accuracy are sensitivity, which refers to the ability to detect the presence of the virus, and specificity, the ability to determine that the targeted pathogen is not present. “So, a sensitive test is less likely to provide a false-negative result and a specific test is less likely to provide a false-positive result,” wrote Kirsten Meek, PhD, medical writer and editor, in an article for ARUP Laboratories.
“Analytic” sensitivity and specificity “represent the accuracy of a test under ideal conditions in which specimens have been collected from patients with either high viral loads or a complete absence of exposure,” she wrote. However, “sensitivity and specificity under real-world conditions, in which patients are more variable and specimen collection may not be ideal, can often be lower than reported numbers.”
In a statement defending its ID Now molecular point-of-care test, which came under scrutiny during a study of COVID-19 molecular tests by NYU Langone Health, Northwell Health, and Cleveland Clinic, according to MedTech Dive, Abbott Laboratories blamed improper sample collection and handling for highly-publicized false negatives produced by its rapid test. An FDA issued alert about the test on May 14 noted that Abbott had agreed to conduct post-market studies to identify the cause of the false negatives and suggest remedial actions.
Issues with Emergency Use Authorizations
In their NEJM analysis, Woloshin et al point to issues with the FDA’s process for issuing Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs). For example, they noted variations in how manufacturers are conducting clinical evaluations to determine test performance. “The FDA prefers the use of ‘natural clinical specimens’ but has permitted the use of ‘contrived specimens’ produced by adding viral RNA or inactivated virus to leftover clinical material,” they wrote.
When evaluating clinical performance, manufacturers ordinarily conduct an index test of patients and compare the results with reference-standard test, according to the Dartmouth researchers. For people showing symptoms, the reference standard should be a clinical diagnosis performed by an independent adjudication panel. However, they wrote, “it is unclear whether the sensitivity of any FDA-authorized commercial test has been assessed in this way.” Additionally, a reference standard for determining sensitivity in asymptomatic people “is an unsolved problem that needs urgent attention to increase confidence in test results for contact-tracing or screening purposes.”
Continued adherence to current measures, such as physical distancing and surface disinfection.
Development of highly sensitive and specific tests or combinations of tests to minimize the risk of false-negative results and ongoing transmission based on a false sense of security.
Improved RT-PCR tests and serological assays.
Development and communication of clear risk-stratified protocols for management of negative COVID-19 test results.
“These protocols must evolve as diagnostic test, transmission, and outcome statistics become more available,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, clinical laboratories remain somewhat on their own at selecting which COVID-19 molecular and serology tests they want to purchase and run in their labs. Complicating such decisions is the fact that many of the nation’s most reputable in vitro diagnostics manufacturers cannot produce enough of their COVID-19 tests to meet demand.
Consequently, when looking to purchase tests for SARS-CoV-2, smaller medical laboratory organizations find themselves evaluating COVID-19 kits developed by little-known or even brand-new companies.