Skip to main content
Move the World.
Coronavirus Test

Lead Image © Pictoors / Adobe Stock. Design by Andrew Brumagen.

California-based diagnostics company BillionToOne has announced the creation of a coronavirus test, which it says would allow the United States to check more than a million people for COVID-19 every day.

Currently, the U.S. is testing just a fraction of that (between 100,000-150,000) each day.

Throughout the pandemic, most places have been using quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) testing to determine whether a patient is infected with the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

To do this, they first take a specimen sample from the back of the patient's throat. Then they use chemicals to extract any viral RNA from the specimen and an enzyme to convert that RNA into DNA.

The U.S could double its total number of people tested in just two days.

A specialized machine then heats and cools the DNA in a way that replicates it, making the coronavirus detectable.

PCR testing is reliable and doesn't take too long — about four hours from the time a sample reaches the lab.

However, the process requires some skill and the chemicals and instruments needed for a PCR-based coronavirus test are currently in short supply in the U.S.

"I would say that the reason why testing isn't widespread is not because the labs didn't want to do it. It's just very hard to do, and the supplies are really limiting right now," pathologist Geoffrey S. Baird told Quartz.

"Many hospitals that would like to be doing this testing simply cannot buy an instrument or get the supplies to do it," he added.

Due in part to those limitations, the U.S. only tested about 2 million people between January 18 and April 8 — a mere .6% of the population.

BillionToOne's coronavirus test could allow the U.S to double its total number of people tested in just two days, according to the company's announcement.

That's because the test eliminates the need for RNA-extraction chemicals and requires minimal training.

It also relies on an instrument called a Sanger Sequencer, which can run 1,536 samples at once, instead of a common qPCR instrument, which usually can only run 48 at a time.

Each Sanger sequencing instrument could complete 3,840 tests per day. The Human Genome Project alone has hundreds of these instruments, enough to allow the U.S. to run more than a million coronavirus tests every day.

BillionToOne says it expects to submit its coronavirus test to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in about two weeks in the hopes of receiving Emergency Use Authorization.

Once authorized, the company will begin selling its coronavirus test kits to labs with Sanger sequencing instruments for about $15, BillionToOne CEO Oguzhan Atay told Genome Web.

That price will include the use of BillionToOne's analysis software. Add in the cost of Sanger sequencing — $2 and $6 per sample — and the whole cost of testing a person for the coronavirus using BillionToOne's method is about $20.

Currently, Medicare pays labs $36 to run one of the CDC's tests, meaning that BillionToOne's coronavirus test could be the cost-effective, efficient alternative to qPCR testing the U.S. so desperately needs.

Up Next

If you want to understand a problem, talk to the people working on solutions. Join us as we meet the people and explore the ideas on the frontlines of an unprecedented global response.

Public Health
Group Coronavirus Testing Helps Make Most of Limited Kits
Group Coronavirus Testing
Public Health
Group Coronavirus Testing Helps Make Most of Limited Kits
Researchers across the globe are testing the efficacy of group coronavirus testing — using one kit for multiple patients — with promising results.

Researchers across the globe are testing the efficacy of group coronavirus testing — using one kit for multiple patients — with promising results.

Public Health
Gates Foundation Funds At-Home Coronavirus Testing Project
coronavirus testing
Public Health
Gates Foundation Funds At-Home Coronavirus Testing Project
The Gates Foundation is funding an at-home coronavirus testing project in Seattle, with the goal of testing thousands of people for COVID-19 daily.

The Gates Foundation is funding an at-home coronavirus testing project in Seattle, with the goal of testing thousands of people for COVID-19 daily.

Public Health
New Coronavirus Test Offers Results in Minutes
new coronavirus test
Public Health
New Coronavirus Test Offers Results in Minutes
Abbott Laboratories’ new coronavirus test can tell if a person has COVID-19 in just five minutes — far faster than existing testing methods.

Abbott Laboratories’ new coronavirus test can tell if a person has COVID-19 in just five minutes — far faster than existing testing methods.

Public Health
South Korea Starts Using “Phone Booths” for Coronavirus Tests
coronavirus tests
Public Health
South Korea Starts Using “Phone Booths” for Coronavirus Tests
A South Korean hospital has created “phone booths” where medical staff can complete coronavirus tests on patients during the COVID-19 outbreak.

A South Korean hospital has created “phone booths” where medical staff can complete coronavirus tests on patients during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Public Health
University Students Step up to Expand Coronavirus Testing
Expand Coronavirus Testing
Public Health
University Students Step up to Expand Coronavirus Testing
University students are helping expand coronavirus testing by volunteering their time to help process thousands of test samples per day in school labs.

University students are helping expand coronavirus testing by volunteering their time to help process thousands of test samples per day in school labs.

Robotics
Spain Will Use Robots to Increase Coronavirus Testing
Coronavirus Testing
Robotics
Spain Will Use Robots to Increase Coronavirus Testing
Spain is buying a fleet of robots to increase coronavirus testing from 20,000 COVID-19 tests daily to 80,000, according to officials.

Spain is buying a fleet of robots to increase coronavirus testing from 20,000 COVID-19 tests daily to 80,000, according to officials.

Public Health
New Study Boosts Case for At-Home Coronavirus Tests
at-home coronavirus tests
Public Health
New Study Boosts Case for At-Home Coronavirus Tests
A new study eliminates one major argument against at-home coronavirus tests: that patients won’t be able to collect usable samples themselves.

A new study eliminates one major argument against at-home coronavirus tests: that patients won’t be able to collect usable samples themselves.

Freethink Voices
An Epidemic of False Confidence Related to COVID-19
coronavirus predictions
Freethink Voices
An Epidemic of False Confidence Related to COVID-19
To distinguish between the most optimistic and pessimistic pandemic scenarios, we need to measure how many people have developed an immunity to the virus.
By Danny Hillis

To distinguish between the most optimistic and pessimistic pandemic scenarios, we need to measure how many people have developed an immunity to the virus.

Public Health
Ghana Uses Drones to Speed Up Coronavirus Testing
Speed Up Coronavirus Testing
Public Health
Ghana Uses Drones to Speed Up Coronavirus Testing
In Ghana, Zipline is helping speed up coronavirus testing by using drones to deliver test samples, and it wants to bring the service to the U.S.

In Ghana, Zipline is helping speed up coronavirus testing by using drones to deliver test samples, and it wants to bring the service to the U.S.