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LabCentral, BioLabs and E25Bio Instill Confidence for Returning to Co-Working with Cambridge Consortium for Rapid COVID-19 Tests

LabCentral and Biolabs are co-working spaces where hundreds of people congregate to work, share ideas and innovate – together. And “together” is the key word. So, as co-working communities, we were particularly hard hit by the pandemic, which by its very nature, has forced people to distance themselves from one another. If our staff and resident scientists and entrepreneurs don’t feel comfortable working on-site together, the benefits of co-working are lost.

As scientists, we saw this major public health challenge as an opportunity to help our community. At the same time, we identified the larger societal need to develop widespread testing of asymptomatic populations. To address these pressing needs, we created the Cambridge Consortium for Rapid COVID-19 Tests (CCRCT).

The Consortium is a partnership between LabCentral, BioLabs and E25Bio, that is intended to better equip our communities to deal with the challenges of the pandemic so they can return to work – or co-working – safely through a frequent, rapid and inexpensive testing protocol. Outbreaks of COVID-19 are typically the result of undetected spread from asymptomatic individuals. But with fast, regular testing, we can discover and isolate asymptomatic carriers of the virus before they pass it on to others.

It is important to remember that screening tests for workplaces have significantly different requirements from diagnostic testing for patients in hospitals. For diagnosis of disease symptoms, we have to use highly accurate testing because it will drive therapy decisions by healthcare providers. For that purpose, the PCR test is appropriate, even with its high cost and delay in obtaining results. However, PCR is utterly impractical for widespread screening or return-to-work strategies. PCR requires a central lab setup with a special (CLIA) certification, as well as expensive equipment, reagents and specialized staff. This results in significant backup in the current testing regime, with costs of $100 or more per test, and often impractical delays from when the sample is taken to when the results are reported.

Instead, we need rapid, low-cost testing that can ideally be done daily to detect asymptomatic carriers of the virus before they spread it to others at their workplace, school, government agency or other venues. Think of a rapid test that is done within minutes, without requiring specialized equipment and personnel. The experience could be similar to the TSA check at the airport where we have all accepted the slight inconvenience for the safety and peace of mind that is achieved with a rapid screen of all passengers. The CCRCT was set up to accelerate the development of such rapid screening tests.

E25Bio, a LabCentral alumnus, has developed a rapid antigen detection test which can be self- administered at home, workplace or other venue within minutes and for a price that will be well below $10 per test. It is based on a technology that detects the presence of the virus through binding of one of the virus’s surface proteins. It has the slight disadvantage of requiring multiple copies of the virus to be present in order to give a signal, which means it is not as sensitive as PCR. While PCR is able to pick up a signal and show the presence of the virus even if only a very low number of virus particles are around, these antigen detection tests require higher “viral loads.” However, that has also been discussed as a potential advantage because people carrying very small amounts of virus are probably not a risk to others as they won’t transmit the virus easily.

The Consortium’s activities are being overseen by Dr. Laura Holberger, PhD, VP at Biolabs and Celina Chang, VP at LabCentral. We’re fortunate to have a highly-trained and motivated population of employees and resident companies who are eager to be part of the solution for the pandemic crisis. More than 300 of them volunteered to participate in our pilot testing program, where they conduct the E25Bio self-tests several times per week at home. We also have the labs and the skills to set up our own testing; and the CCRCT helps us navigate the regulatory and logistical challenges around this.

Since we started the testing, we have seen more of our resident scientists and entrepreneurs shift back to working on-site (vs. remotely from home), and we believe this is due to increased confidence in the safety of our workplace due to the rapid testing program. We view this as a success for our co-working community, but more importantly, we see this as the first step in a completely new kind of testing framework that will finally enable communities to prioritize employee safety while keeping economies running.

To view more specifics about the CCRCT, see the press release here.