Bringing Science to Life: My Road to Detect

A Letter from Dr. Michael Mina

When SARS-CoV-2 began to emerge and cause Covid-19 globally, it became obvious that testing for the virus would need to scale quickly. Without testing, we fly blind, swinging and missing. For a pandemic of a novel acute respiratory virus, testing is not simply for medical diagnostic use, but rather shapes how we think about the virus itself, including how we respond to it as individuals and as communities, and serves as a central tool for public health. 

Traditionally, testing for public health is symptom-based and performed in a central laboratory. The result activates a cascade of isolation, contact tracing and quarantines, with the goal of slowing transmission. For some viruses, this approach can work. But for SARS-CoV-2, the virus simply moves too fast for laboratory-based testing to have the type of impact the pandemic demands. Laboratory-based testing not only adds cost but, importantly, increases logistics, reduces equitable access and causes delays (transit, queues upon arrival, reporting). The importance of speed to get results cannot be over-emphasized for a virus like SARS-CoV-2. A fast test that can give results in under an hour is a test that can take on entirely new uses and meanings. Unlike laboratory results, which need to be sent out and usually require minimum 24 hours, fast results allow real-time decision making based on the present, not the past. Fast tests that are inexpensive, accessible, easy and able to be used at home, school or work, have the power to transform the traditional public health approaches and allow individuals to take greater ownership over the health and safety of their communities.  

For the past year I, along with numerous scientists in my laboratory at the Harvard School of Public Health and colleagues at other institutions, have investigated novel approaches to tackling Covid-19 by interweaving epidemiology, immunology and testing for viruses. What we have found is that testing – with frequent, fast and accessible tests– can drive down transmission by empowering individuals to know their status so that, if they are positive for the virus, they can take steps, even small behavioral changes, to not spread the virus to other people. We’ve found that testing to stop transmission can not only support our current outbreak mitigation strategies but can also help ensure that the vaccines being rolled out have the best chance possible to work effectively in the future. 

From a foundation rooted in science, I have advocated for fast, simple, accessible and accurate Covid-19 testing to help get us out of this pandemic. I have delivered this message to government regulators, policymakers, industry and the public health community.

What I’ve learned is that building consensus and driving policy — while important — can be a frustratingly slow process. And I’ve found that, while the science and publications we produce are crucial, the publications are of no use if they are not picked up and translated into actionable tools. As an academic scientist, I’ve found that, while I do have a voice in the national discourse surrounding this pandemic, my only real tool is either producing more science, or advocating. After a year of the latter (advocating in essentially all outlets), it is apparent that it too can only go so far – even with the microphone of the national media outlets. 

I want the science to be translated and done so well. And for this I’m not just referring to Covid-19, but to much broader public health efforts; to create a new generation of tools towards a broader vision that I call public health engineering, which encompasses the broad science I focus on outside of Covid-19. 

For that, I needed to find a partner – some entity with the scientific, technical and industrial know-how where my ideas and long-term visions can get put into action outside of academia. 

As a leading advocate for widespread use of rapid antigen tests, when I started thinking about robustly translating my science into action, I was approached by plenty of antigen test companies to advise or be a spokesperson for them. I could have, I suppose, gone that direction – but that didn’t feel like something I wanted to do. What I really was looking for was to partner with scientists or a company that is not the sort of company making the rapid antigen tests I have been advocating so vociferously for during this pandemic. While I am perhaps one of the world’s most public advocates for ubiquitous rapid antigen testing at home, I see that as a temporary strategy – a tool for the current pandemic but not a place that suits my craving to see a broad science and engineering approach to public health come to life. 

Instead, I found Detect, an incredible science and mission-driven company that has at its core-- at least in my opinion-- a yearning to change the public’s health over a long arc into the future. 

Detect is a stellar company full of exceptional scientists. The company stands out because of its incredibly strong technical approaches, vision and focus on designing high-performing molecular tests that can quickly be scaled today to help us fight Covid-19, and, as or more importantly, the pandemics of the future. I am excited to partner with Jonathan Rothberg, who is a scientist first and foremost and has a strong track record (that’s saying it mildly) bringing to life science in the form of devices and life-science tools that change the world.

With Detect, I feel I have an opportunity to help translate my expertise in public health epidemiology, laboratory sciences and medicine into real-world tools to help people. In the moment, I will be able to use my deep expertise on SARS-CoV-2 to help produce a type of simple, accurate test that exceeds those that I’ve been advocating for, and that can be made available to any American who needs them. 

In my role, I will help advise the Detect executive team and scientists on R&D plans and clinical strategy with the goal, first, of helping them launch the point of care test that is currently pending at the FDA and help them complete the development of a home version of the test. Unlike many other high quality home-based molecular tests, the Detect Covid-19 Test was designed specifically with cost and manufacturing simplicity in mind. I truly believe the test will play an important role in helping us overcome this virus. Longer term, I am excited to help Detect build out their platform to take on other communicable diseases, starting with the addition of influenza and potentially RSV to the Covid-19 platform. 

It’s important to note that I will advise and support Detect while continuing my advocacy, lab and research work, as well as teaching, writing and public health guidance. I am personally excited to work with the Detect team. It’s the right outlet for me to bring my science to life and to do it with a team with a long track record of changing the life-sciences across the world.

-Dr. Michael Mina