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Facebook, Google veteran Hugo Barra to lead Covid-19 testing start-up

16 December 2021 - 08:19 By Emma Court
Hugo Barra, a onetime executive at social-media leader Facebook and web-search giant Google, was named chief executive officer of Detect, a Covid-19 testing startup.
Hugo Barra, a onetime executive at social-media leader Facebook and web-search giant Google, was named chief executive officer of Detect, a Covid-19 testing startup.
Image: Bloomberg

Hugo Barra, a one-time executive at social media leader Facebook and web-search giant Google, was named CEO of Detect, a Covid-19 testing start-up.

The company makes a $50 (R800) at-home test that looks for the virus’ genetic material, similar to some laboratory assays, and produces results in about an hour. The Guilford, Connecticut-based start-up is launching its product on Wednesday.

Barra, 45, earlier served as vice-president of Android product management for Alphabet's Google and most recently was vice-president of virtual reality at Facebook, now known as Meta. He said he aims to bring his background in consumer technology to make diagnostics simpler and more user-friendly.

“Covid-19 has dramatically accelerated some transitions that were already playing out,” like shifts to virtual medical appointments and remote prescribing, the CEO said in an interview.

“But that bit in the middle, which is diagnostics, when you need to look more deeply and see what’s happening inside your body, is the bit that really hasn’t evolved or progressed much for quite a while.”

Detect’s molecular test, cleared in late October by the US Food and Drug Administration, identifies the coronavirus by its genetic material. It can be purchased without a prescription. Rapid, low-cost assays that seek out viral proteins, called antigen tests, are also available for at-home use but are less sensitive than molecular tests. 

The FDA has authorised three rapid molecular tests for Covid-19, including Detect’s and others from Cue Health and Lucira Health. Another related type of molecular test, called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), has been widely used throughout the pandemic but requires laboratory processing.

Processing hub

Users of Detect’s test put a nasal swab sample into a tube that has test-processing chemicals embedded in the cap. The tube is heated in a hub about the size of a computer mouse, breaking up cells to extract and copy snippets of genetic material.

A reader then delivers the positive or negative result. Each single-use test costs $49 (R785), and the reusable hub is $39 (R625); they can be purchased together for $75 (R1200).

In a comparison with a gold-standard laboratory PCR involving 112 subjects, Detect’s test correctly returned a positive result about 91% of the time and a correct negative result in nearly 98% of cases. The other 2% of negative tests had correct results that “were incorrectly interpreted by the user,” according to a company fact sheet.

Hundreds of thousands of the Covid-19 tests will be available in the first months after the US launch, with monthly production capacity slated to quickly rise into the millions, Barra said. 

Detect was founded by Jonathan Rothberg, who’s started multiple sequencing companies including Ion Torrent Systems, now owned by Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Raindance Technologies, purchased in 2017 by Bio-Rad Laboratories. In 2016, Rothberg received a National Medal of Technology and Innovation from former president Barack Obama.

Early identification

The new start-up has raised $110m (R1.76bn) from investors and was awarded $8.1m (R129.8m) by the National Institutes of Health through its Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics, or RADx, program. 

An advantage of the approach is the ability to identify Covid-19 infections “long before you have enough virus to give it to someone else,” Rothberg said. “And because it’s so precise you don’t have false positives. And that’s the power of these PCR-like tests.”

Detect also offers a proctored version of the test through a partner so that it can be used while travelling and to verify results for employers with vaccination or testing mandates. The company aims to expand to other illnesses, including flu and other respiratory viruses, he said. 

Barra had previously served as an adviser to Detect. He left Meta in May to join the start-up full-time. 

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com



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