A need for more COVID-19 testing sparks innovation

The need to solve for challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis is sparking creative solutions. And getting those concepts from idea to implementation is happening quickly.

One example is work being carried out in Washington state by The Everett Clinic, part of Optum. It is research aimed at safer, more widespread testing for the virus, which many states have said will be needed to determine when to relax social distancing measures.

Watch the video to hear Dr. Wyatt Decker, CEO of OptumHealth, and Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, an infectious disease specialist at The Everett Clinic, tell the story.


An initial study led by Dr. Tu and UnitedHealth Group Research and Development showed patients could administer tests themselves. That changed testing practices to reduce the risk of infection for health care workers, conserve supplies of personal protective equipment and provide a more comfortable experience for patients. It even allowed for drive-through testing.

“We can collect one person every three minutes. When we do it in a car, we’re using the car as the containment vehicle. It’s not only faster, it’s nicer and more user-friendly and it’s much safer for everybody involved,” Dr. Tu told “PBS NewsHour.”

It turns out that leap forward in testing was only the first idea to come out of Dr. Tu’s team. They built upon the work to address a shortage of foam swabs for COVID-19 tests and the liquid used to store the swabs. In a second study, they found polyester swabs and saline solution are just as reliable as the traditional testing materials.

COVID-19 testing site

Dan Wattendorf, director of Innovative Technology Solutions at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a partner in the research, said the discovery is a big step forward because polyester swabs can be readily manufactured and scaled to overcome shortages.

“We’re committed to working with partners to identify the simplest, most accessible solutions to obtaining an accurate COVID-19 test result,” Wattendorf says.

Both studies at The Everett Clinic led to changes in federal rules for testing. The changes will provide flexibility and expand testing capacity.

Work continues to rapidly solve other COVID-19-related challenges.

“We are grateful to be partnering with a broad range of collaborators to advance community and national response efforts against COVID-19,” says Ken Ehlert, chief scientific officer of UnitedHealth Group, parent company of Optum.

Read the full report announcing the results of the studies.

Watch Wick’s Weekly (a video series started by UnitedHealth Group CEO Dave Wichmann) from April 17 to learn more about the study results.

Read more stories.

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