Former Googler and Facebooker Launches COVID Testing Startup

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The world is currently reeling from the rapid expansion of yet another COVID variant, but the timing couldn’t be better for a startup called Detect. The company, helmed by former Google and Facebook executive Hugo Barra, offers a system for at-home COVID testing, but unlike other home options, Detect uses the more advanced PCR method of detection. Demand has been so high, Detect has had to limit people to one test per household. The kits aren’t cheap, but they’re cheaper and faster than the tests people are standing in line to get. 

COVID testing comes in two basic forms. There’s the antigen (or molecular) test, which is fast and inexpensive, and then there are Nucleic Acid Amplification Tests, or NAAT. The most common type of NAAT is PCR (polymerase chain reaction), which amplifies and detects viral genetic material (RNA in the case of coronaviruses). Antigen tests simply probe your sample for viral particles in a similar fashion to home pregnancy tests. PCR is more accurate, and that’s why many countries require these tests for travel authorization. Unfortunately, same-day PCR results can cost hundreds of dollars — I personally had to pay $250 for one recently. Detect’s reusable kit with one test costs $75, which goes a long way to explaining why demand is through the roof. 

Anyone who has followed Android and Google since the early days might remember Barra. He was on stage at several major Android announcements, and he seemed much more comfortable in the spotlight than most Google engineers. However, he abruptly moved on to Xiaomi in 2013 and then to Facebook in 2017. He was announced as the CEO of Detect last week. 

Antigen tests can detect virus particles in a sample, but PCR amplifies and detects viral genetic material for a more accurate assessment.

Demand has been so high that the company is releasing tests in batches every day at noon, according to an interview with The Verge. The test kits are $49 each, but you can keep using the same Hub, which is essentially an incubator for the sample. Detect kits can provide PCR test results in an hour at home, and it should be much more reliable than antigen tests. You can also purchase a $20 voucher for certified travel results, which involves having a health practitioner watch over video while you run the test. 

The testing platform was also designed to be reprogrammed as needed. The company plans to release other genetic tests that will use the same Hub, including an STI test and a respiratory panel. Even absent these other tests, Detect is probably going to sell every kit it can make. I could see frequent travelers relying on these tests, which sound cheaper and more convenient than other rapid PCR options.

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