How Australian doctor seduced Washington with non-prescription Covid-19 test

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Sean Parsons, an Australian doctor who invented an over-the-counter Covid-19 test, at his Brisbane factory on December 21, 2020 (AFP / Patrick HAMILTON)

Creating devices to detect viruses started out as a hobby for Sean Parsons. Today, this Australian doctor is overseeing the mass production of his flagship invention: an over-the-counter Covid-19 test, the first to receive the green light from the US regulator.

In the workshops of Brisbane, in eastern Australia, workers at Ellume, the company he founded, patiently assemble the parts of these gray kits, the size and shape of which are reminiscent of a pregnancy test.

The Ellume test allows you to know in 15 minutes if you are a carrier of the coronavirus. And it will soon be available without a prescription in American pharmacies.

“We are making the first products that will go to the United States. This is a very important moment,” said Parsons recently during a tour of his factory.

The American Medicines Agency (FDA) had just given the green light to the use of Ellume’s kits in an emergency, and the factory was then manufacturing 16,000 per day.

It is now fully embarked on a titanic challenge: accelerating the pace to bring production to 100,000 tests per day by the end of the month, and to a million by mid-year.

“The goal is to diagnose as many people as possible, millions of people, in order to encourage them to reduce transmission of the virus,” says Parsons.

– Sustainable demand –

news“> A worker assembles parts for anti-Covid-19 tests at Ellume's Brisbane factory on December 21, 2020 (AFP / Patrick HAMILTON)

A worker assembles parts for anti-Covid-19 tests at Ellume’s Brisbane factory on December 21, 2020 (AFP / Patrick HAMILTON)

Each kit includes a swab used for nasal sampling which is paired via Bluetooth with an application available on a smartphone capable of giving the result.

Although vaccination has started in the United States, there is still a long way to go to achieve mass immunity, and Mr Parsons is convinced that there will be demand for his tests for “many more years.” “.

“There are people who will continue to worry about the risk of contracting the coronavirus, and those who will refuse vaccination, for whatever reason,” he said.

“From our point of view, the screening campaigns are far from over.”

To understand the origin of his invention, we have to go back to 2010, in the midst of the influenza A (H1N1) epidemic, when Sean Parsons worked in a Brisbane hospital beset by people seeking to be tested.

At the end of one of his shifts, the doctor found himself facing a teenager who later turned out to be positive.

“If he had got the result faster, if he hadn’t spent four hours in a waiting room transmitting the virus to I don’t know how many people, then we could have been more efficient in our care” , he says.

– “The next pandemic” –

He then took up his free time to think about how to produce a device that would quickly detect influenza-like illnesses.

At first it was “kind of like a hobby,” he explains. But by the end of 2011, Ellume had raised enough funds for Sean Parsons to devote himself full time to his project.

When the coronavirus began to spread, Ellume had already developed a screening mechanism to make a do-it-yourself flu test. The company had even formed a partnership for tuberculosis tests.

news“> Workers at the Ellume factory in Brisbane mass-produce coronavirus detection kits on December 21, 2021 (AFP / Patrick HAMILTON)

Workers at the Ellume factory in Brisbane mass-produce coronavirus detection kits on December 21, 2021 (AFP / Patrick HAMILTON)

In February 2020, even before Australia closed its borders to protect itself from Covid-19, Sean Parsons and his teams were devoting all their efforts to adapt these devices to the new coronavirus.

Ellume then gets $ 31 million in aid from US government agencies, which means that the US will have the scoop of the new test.

A clinical trial showed that it was 96% as effective as a laboratory test, complementing traditional methods, which convinced the FDA to grant it an urgent authorization.

For now, the United States is Ellume’s priority, even if Sean Parsons aims to develop worldwide. He hopes this year for a European green light.

It took eight years to develop the technology, eight months to adapt it to Covid-19, but Sean Parsons is already thinking about the next move.

“We are building the capacity to deal with an upcoming pandemic,” he says. “It is inevitable, and we will have to be ready.”

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