NIH begins taking pitches for its $1.5B COVID-19 diagnostics competition

The National Institutes of Health kicked off what it describes as a “Shark Tank”-like effort to select and fund new diagnostic tests for the novel coronavirus, and its offering a total of $1.5 billion to be divvied up among the winners. 

The Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative, or RADx, aims to fast track companies’ validation, regulatory review and production, with the goal of delivering millions of at-home or point-of-care tests per week to the public by the end of the summer.

Working with the FDA, CDC and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, known as BARDA, the NIH’s diagnostics challenge complements its programs and public-private partnerships on expediting the development of COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines.

The national call for test pitches begins with a rolling submission and selection process, funneling applicants through a competitive three-phase review, with $500 million in milestone-based funding available to the chosen programs at each step.

“We need all innovators, from the basement to the boardroom, to come together to advance diagnostic technologies, no matter where they are in development,” said NIH Director Francis Collins. “Now is the time for that unmatched American ingenuity to bring the best and most innovative technologies forward to make testing for COVID-19 widely available.”

NIH's RADx funding initiative moves applicants through a "'Shark Tank'-like" selection process. (NIH)

The winning ideas will be matched up with technical experts and manufacturing specialists to assist in their development—while finalists that are already further along in development will be advanced on a separate track towards commercialization, the NIH said.

The RADx initiative is built upon the Point-of-Care Technologies Research Network—or POCTRN, a program previously set up by the NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, or NIBIB—a multidisciplinary coalition of research centers focused on testing prototype diagnostic tests.

POCTRN’s efforts are based at five technology hubs—including Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology; Johns Hopkins University; Northwestern University; the University of Massachusetts Medical School; and Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Harvard and MGH’s Consortia for Improving Medicine with Innovation & Technology houses the program’s coordinating center, which will lead the multiple, parallel review boards tasked with evaluating RADx proposals.

“Americans are innovators and makers,” said NIBIB Director Bruce Tromberg. “We need American tech experts, innovators and entrepreneurs to step up to one of the toughest challenges we’ve faced as a country, to help get us safely back to public spaces.”