Jack Priestman, co-founder of Salient Bio, on how the pandemic has prompted a more proactive shift towards diagnosis for health issues.
The pandemic has totally changed how we navigate everyday life, and while the rollout of vaccines marks the sense of a return to normality, some shifts feel more like a permanent evolution rather than temporary measures. It is clear, for example, that our increasing dependence on digital – whether in shopping, working or socialising – will likely persist.
But now that the crisis has refocused our minds, so too will our attitudes towards our health. This will likely manifest in the form of proactive, rather than reactive testing, aided by rapid and accessible diagnostics.
Diagnostics – a guide in uncertain times
Rapid diagnostics has been pivotal in the fight against Covid, helping governments track the size and growth rate of infections, as well as helping them identify different variants – vital as the virus has continued to evolve.
Testing has also been crucial in a preventative sense, with regular tests able to provide a safety net to allow events or work in controlled environments to go ahead, or to monitor any potential uptick in cases where countries have managed to get the virus on the back foot.
On a more personal level, Covid tests have been important for our own peace of mind, even if they confirm a positive result. Knowledge, as they say, is power, and being able to ascertain whether we have the virus or not has been one element of control we have over what has otherwise been an unpredictable and brutally virulent disease.
In the face of such an all-consuming health crisis, our eyes have been opened to how we check up on our health more generally.
Prior to the pandemic, we often had a laisse faire attitude. The time, and in some cases expense, of paying a visit to the GP would often result in seeking a check-up once symptoms presented themselves.
Unfortunately, this reactive attitude towards later stage diagnosis leads to more complicated health outcomes and a strain on health services.
Research conducted by Imperial College Health Partners showed that late diagnosis of rare diseases cost the NHS over £3.4bn across the span of just ten years, while treatment for HIV surges to £28,000 per patient per year when caught late compared to £14,000 when identified earlier.
Not only is the financial cost of late diagnosis a huge issue for the NHS, but late diagnosis also requires more capacity. This will be severely tested in an environment that has to cater for a surge of other health needs since Covid has been prioritised over most other medical conditions.
This is backed up by recent NHS statistics, which put the number of people on waiting lists at a 12-year high.
What will a proactive approach entail?
Instead of visiting a GP with an ailment, rapid diagnostics would be delivered or distributed via pharmacies for home use, where patients would then be able to submit a sample in their own time to be processed in diagnostics labs.
The diagnostics labs of the future will likely be automated, thereby reducing labour costs and expediting the testing process as well as lessening the opportunity for human error.
To take Salient Bio’s operation as an example, samples would be prepped and standardised before an automated liquid handling process takes place to extract RNA samples ready for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing.
Once conducted, a thermocycling analysis would then establish results.
Each step is completed in separate modular processes allow for maximum efficiency and turnaround time from receipt of sample to result in just a matter of hours. The PCR nature of the tests secure an accuracy rate of over 99 per cent.
Why limit this level of efficiency just to tackling Covid when it could have such profound effects on addressing the broader health issues facing the NHS and global health services?
And for a society so fraught by the threat Covid poses – why not leverage diagnostics in identifying other infections when it has been so central to providing that sense of security against such an invisible enemy?
The move to health “MOTs” that don’t search for particular medical conditions but can track an individual’s health and catch any concerning deviations from the norm is underway.