Fast at-home coronavirus tests could help bring the United States’ surging outbreak under control — if companies developing the tests can convince regulators that the public can be trusted to use them correctly.
Several firms are vying to be the first to market a test that Americans could buy over the counter with results delivered in minutes at a bedside or a breakfast table. That could allow people to screen themselves before heading to the office or school, relieving pressure on overburdened testing laboratories and quickly identifying new infections.
But concerns about the tests’ reliability, how consumers might react to their results and how public health departments will track them have slowed their development.
Companies formulating such tests say they won’t seek emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration until later this year or early next — in part because the agency wants them to prove that adults of different ages, education levels and English proficiency can successfully use their products.
Public health experts say FDA’s caution is warranted, because a test that’s unreliable or hard to use could help the virus spread. There is also a risk that many people will interpret a negative result as an all-clear; in reality, even the best test will produce some false negatives. And even a true negative does not guarantee that a person is not in the early stages of infection.
“If this was a disease that only impacted the individual, then it wouldn’t be such a problem,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “The problem is that there will be a cohort of people who will take the test, find out that they are presumably negative, but they really weren’t, and go out and infect other people.”
A false negative result could be especially dangerous if “people use it to decide whether to go to parties,” said Heather Pierce, senior director for science policy at the Association of American Medical Colleges. “You’ve got infected people feeling like they have a passport to not engage in the other public health measures that we need to suppress the virus.”
False positive results are also a concern, because some people could isolate for up to two weeks, missing work or school for no reason. But that risk could be lowered with follow-up lab-based testing, and pales in comparison to at-home tests’ potential to prevent Covid-19 spread, said HHS testing czar Brett Giroir.
There is little precedent for at-home infectious disease testing. The FDA has only approved one such test — for HIV, made by OraSure Technologies — that does not require oversight
With thousands of gyms across the country forced to close during the pandemic, there’s been an unprecedented opportunity for fitness companies pitching an at-home solution. This moment has propelled public companies like Peloton to stratospheric highs — its market cap is about to eclipse $40 billion — but it has also pushed venture capitalists toward plenty of deals in the fitness space.
Future launched with a bold sell for consumers: a $150 per month subscription app that virtually teamed users with a real-life fitness coach. Leaning on the health-tracking capabilities of the Apple Watch, the startup has been aiming to build a platform that teams motivation, accountability and fitness insights.
Close to 18 months after announcing a Series A led by Kleiner Perkins, the startup tells TechCrunch they’ve closed a $24 million Series B led by Trustbridge Partners, with Caffeinated Capital and Kleiner Perkins participating again.
Amid the at-home fitness boom, Future has seen major growth of its own. CEO Rishi Mandal says that the company’s growth rate has tripled in recent months as thousands of gyms closed their doors. He says shelter-in-place has merely accelerated an ongoing shift toward tech-forward fitness services that can help busy users find time during their day to exercise.
”The operating thesis of the company is that modern life is inherently crazy not just during pandemic times but in normal times,” Mandal says. “The idea of having a set routine is a complete fallacy.”
At $149 per month, Future isn’t aiming for mass market appeal the same way other digital fitness programs being produced by Peloton, Fitbit or Apple are. It seems to be more squarely aimed at users who could be a candidate for getting a personal trainer but might not be ready to make the investment or don’t need the guided instruction so much as they need general guidelines and some accountability.
As the startup closes on more funding, the team has big goals to expand its network. Mandal aims to have 1,000 coaches on the Future platform by this time next year. Reaching new scales could give the service a chance to tackle new challenges. Mandal sees opportunities for Future to expand its coaching services beyond fitness as it grows, “There’s a real opportunity to help people with all aspects of their health.”