The global response to the coronavirus pandemic has brought many different elements of medical science and technology into sharp focus.
Rolling news headlines have led to previously obscure words and terms, such as PPE, incubation period and contact tracing, entering the public consciousness, even if they are not always fully understood.
Even within the medical sector, lesser-known technologies have been brought to the wider attention of governments and health authorities as they continue to work to contain the virus.
An example of this is lateral flow. The technology has been around since the 1980s and has a wide variety of applications, including in rapid testing for infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV.
Despite this, lateral flow remains best known for its original use as the home pregnancy test. Many who work with the technology, including us at Bond, feel that its full potential as a low-cost, rapid and effective diagnostic is yet to be widely appreciated or understood.
And the coronavirus might just be helping that.
The focus on mass testing as a way to control the outbreak has put the spotlight on the technology like never before.
A look at Google search trends over the last five years shows how much interest the pandemic has sparked in the technology, with a huge spike in searches for the term ‘lateral flow’ in March and April this year.
It’s no surprise that the region with the highest number of searches for the term in the last 90 days is South Korea. The country’s expansive and rigorous coronavirus testing programme has been held up as an example of international best practice.
This is closely followed by the Philippines and Malaysia, whose governments have purchased large amounts of rapid test kits from South Korea as they ramp up community testing.
Searches for the term in the USA are also particularly high. This was no doubt helped by Alex Azar, the US government’s health and human services secretary, who recently highlighted lateral flow during an interview on a CNN talk show.
He told host Jake Tapper: “We are going to be bringing online something quite exciting, rapid antigen tests. The look is more like the look of a pregnancy test which is a lateral flow device. We are working with manufacturers on approving those very high-volume point-of-care tests.”
Mr Azar explained lateral flow tests would be “part of the recipe for the future” to help authorities with “broad surveillance and testing” in settings where virus outbreaks were known to occur, such as nursing homes, prisons and meat packing facilities.
Lateral flow is also getting attention in international science publications. A recent article in leading science journal Nature stated that to stop the virus spreading would take “a massive effort to scale up the production of easy-to-use point-of-care tests and then to deploy them widely”.
It said that the need for POC tests was “pressing”, and that the “speed and versatility” of lateral flow immunoassays made them “invaluable”.
The article also mentioned several companies across the world creating such tests for Covid-19, including our Canadian partners Sona Nanotech. We are adding our unique digital connectivity and real-time data capture to Sona’s novel antigen test.
Bond Digital Health has been advocating the potential of lateral flow technology since we entered the market three years ago. We’ve witnessed the growth and diversification of lateral flow, and most recently we experienced first-hand the growing interest in the technology because of the pandemic.
As the saying goes, it is safest in the eye of the storm. If there is one thing we can be certain of, it is the silver lining that is the digitisation of healthcare. Rapid diagnostic testing and lateral flow are next in line to benefit from digitisation and mobile technology, making them the preferred solution for community health management on a grand scale.
It often feels as if the only ones convinced of the value of lateral flow are those who already work with it. Now, the coronavirus outbreak has put lateral flow in the limelight. This is a technology whose time has come, and we are excited to be making it better with data.