Bill Gates is funding a new program to provide at-home coronavirus testing kits to residents in the Seattle area. The initiative aims to help researchers better understand how COVID-19 spreads through communities. But after an initial rollout that Gates said was testing about 300 people a day, the program has been put on “pause” while it awaits federal approval.

“In any fight, it’s important to know your enemy. Unfortunately, in our battle against COVID-19, there’s a lot that we still don’t know,” the Microsoft co-founder wrote in a blog post on Tuesday, explaining the idea behind the program. “More testing, of course, will help us answer them. But with tests in short supply in many parts of the world, including the U.S., it is impossible to test everyone—at least for now.” 

In the blog post, Gates said he is funding the first-of-its-kind disease surveillance program, called the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network (SCAN), to detect cases of COVID-19 in the greater Seattle area — the first hotspot of the outbreak in the United States. SCAN allows people to collect their own nasal samples using a self-swab test and then ship them to a lab — all without ever leaving home. The program aims to test both healthy and sick people, Gates said. 

“The key advantage of this at-home testing approach is that people don’t need to go to a clinic, where they risk exposing themselves or others to infection,” Gates said. 

The home testing program was operating under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from Washington state health officials, but an update posted on SCAN’s website Wednesday said the program “is currently paused” due to “revised guidance” that requires a separate federal authorization from the FDA.

“We have been in conversation with the FDA since March 1st and hope to have our EUA soon,” SCAN said in the statement. “We are grateful for productive partnerships with the FDA, the Washington State Department of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as we continue to respond to this unprecedented and rapidly changing outbreak.”

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The program is not meant to act as a replacement for medical care, and it doesn’t aim to test every single person in the region, Gates emphasized. Instead, he hopes the results, in addition to demographic data like age, race, gender, ZIP code and pre-existing health conditions, will provide a clearer picture of how the virus is “moving through the community, who is at greatest risk, and whether physical distancing measures are working.” 

Gates said that, by testing a large group of both healthy and sick people from diverse backgrounds, researchers will have a better understanding of what groups are at a higher risk of infection and how social distancing has slowed the spread. 

According to Gates, early results have already found many cases of infected people with mild symptoms that would have otherwise gone undetected. 

Seattle residents interested in taking part in the program can find more information on the SCAN website. 

Extended interview: Bill Gates on coronavirus pandemic

Gates did not say whether he plans to bring the program to other cities. He is funding it privately, and through his investment firm, Gates Ventures, and foundation. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation previously said it is donating $300 million toward global efforts to combat COVID-19. 

SCAN is partnering with the Seattle and King County Public Health Department and five local health institutions: The Brotman Baty Institute, the University of Washington School of Medicine, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Institute for Disease Modeling and the Seattle Children’s Hospital. 

The Gates Foundation has been working in partnership with Seattle public health officials to roll out more testing since early March, when Washington state had the highest number of known cases in the U.S. 

“COVID-19 has started behaving a lot like the once-in-a-century pathogen we’ve been worried about,” Gates said back in February, after years of warning about the threat a global pandemic could pose. “I hope it’s not that bad, but we should assume it will be until we know otherwise.”

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