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Lab receives FDA clearance for at-home COVID-19 saliva test

Clinical Reference Laboratory CEO Robert Thompson joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman to discuss how his company's at-home coronavirus saliva test kit works, after receiving FDA emergency use authorization.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: Welcome back to live market coverage here on "The Ticker." As we've been covering for the last few months here, the US continues to ramp up its testing capacity, largely from about 100,000 tests a day back in March to about 800,000 at last clip at the end of July. But it doesn't really reveal the full picture, which includes potentially long wait times for results that could take a week, perhaps longer, getting tested-- making-- making getting tested, I should say, effectively a waste of time if you don't know whether or not you should be quarantining. And for more on that front, joining us is Robert Thompson.

He's the CEO of Clinical Reference Laboratory, one of America's largest private testing laboratories, and also just won emergency use authorization for a saliva-based test as well. And, Robert, I mean, there are a lot of critics out there-- among them would be Bill Gates, who has been funding a lot of research here on the vaccine front-- who might say testing has been a complete disaster here in the US and that reimbursing any company that tests take longer than 24 hours might actually be a waste. So what's your take on why this has been problematic, and why the saliva tests at-home kits that you're offering might actually be one of the solutions here?

ROBERT THOMPSON: We're trying as a nation to do something we've never done before, which is to screen massively with RT-PCR testing, which is pretty much never been done before. We're doing more tests in one day than we would do in a year in 2019. So that's a very unique challenge, and part of the issue is that NP swabs are really invasive.

These are the long 6-inch sort of touch your sinuses kind of swabs. They're very invasive, and they require medical professionals with property-- with personal protective equipment. There are a lot of issues with that. Saliva solves those issues. It allows at-home testing. It allows easy frequent testing without the pain and discomfort associated with the swabs. And it lets you do large populations quickly and cost effectively.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, when we think about the other issues there on that front, obviously wait times have been pretty large, and you got to deal with people coming in, waiting in line, or going into a doctor's office. Some of the concerns about transmission there. But offering your kit at home, you say it might take one or two days from when your lab receives it to actually get the results. But in total, I mean, when we think about people getting tested and how long they have to wait, if you're starting at the actual saliva point of contact, how long would it take in total to get these tests back?

ROBERT THOMPSON: That would be-- so if you-- if you start and do a kit collection on Monday, it will arrive at the lab on Tuesday. Most likely, it will result out on Tuesday, probably on Wednesday. So we're much faster than the traditional laboratories with NP swabs. One of the things about saliva is that it's very readily automatable. The liquid handling equipment that is in existence today is very well-suited to the saliva specimen, so we can do up to 50,000 tests a day. We're ramping up to that level in a couple of weeks, which will help assure that we can turn those results around quickly.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and ramping up seems to be something that is going to be needed if we think about people are going to go back to work and testing your employees, employers out there. We'll see what comes through in terms of liability protections Republicans might be pushing for here. But in terms of your own capacity constraints as well, how are you looking at who you might actually want to test, whether there are priorities that should be given here?

I understand you're already dealing with Kansas University and-- and kind of working with them. You guys are a Kansas-based company. But beyond them, who are you seeing sign up and-- and want to buy some of these tests here as we think about how many Americans are desperate to get tested?

ROBERT THOMPSON: So the response has been off the charts. We've had banks, we had airlines, sports teams, manufacturers, retailers, financial institutions all trying to figure out how to get their employees tested and get them back to work and to stay at work.

The key to working safely is, in my opinion, we need to be able to test, and we need to get test results back quickly so that people in quarantine get back to work on a timely basis. We're also having conversations with several states and several local county kind of organizations who are interested in pursuing this as a mode to reach particularly underserved populations, as opposed to people that have a car and can go to a drive-thru.

ZACK GUZMAN: Lastly, I mean, before we let you go, you probably know better than anybody else, I mean, what capacity constraints here and how much testing-- people say-- experts say we need to be doing. Obviously, we've come a long way, 100,000 to 800,000. But where we need to be is really the question. So what do you think about the constraints there and actually reaching the number, and what that number actually might be?

ROBERT THOMPSON: We're beginning to see some of the-- the capacity constraints, which has mainly been equipment and supplies, that that supply chain is easing a little bit. So we've been told by many of-- of the other laboratories around that they're beginning to see, especially in September, October, some, you know, blue sky in terms of being able to get more supplies, which I think is kind of critical to most of the laboratories' capacity constraints.

Also, the advent of pooling, which the FDA has approved recently, allows for the asymptomatic populations or populations with very low prevalence that we can-- laboratories can pool those specimens together and use less supplies as part of that, which really greatly enhances capacity, so that we can focus the capacity on the symptomatic population.