NEW DELHI — The American biotech company providing the technology to the first Indian company to receive a preliminary license to manufacture COVID-19 test kits sold just $700 worth of tests in 2018, and had cumulative losses of $23.1 million as of September 2019. The prospectus for its most recent fund-raising round shed doubts on if the company would remain a going concern.
Earlier this month, at a public event in Utah, Co-Diagnostics Inc.’s head of business development, Joe Featherstone, said the company had devised the test in just seven days using advanced computer algorithms rather than the standard process of trial and error, which takes several weeks. Its India manufacturing partner, Synbiotics Ltd, has a track record of manufacturing anti-fungal medication, but no previous experience in making diagnostic kits.
Yet, on March 19 this year, Gujarat-based CoSara Diagnostics Pvt. Ltd, a 50-50 joint venture between Utah-based Co-Diagnostics Inc. (CODX) and Synbiotics India Ltd, said it would begin manufacturing COVID-19 diagnostic tests for the Indian market after, the company’s own press release stated, “Senior officials from the health department expedited the approval process for the license.” The local Ahmedabad Mirror carried the news on the same day, adding that the senior officials “helped in expediting the process for the license after inspecting the file themselves.” For now, CoSARA is still awaiting final approval before it can begin making the test in India.
Synbiotics is part of the Sarabhai group, a well-established business family from Gujarat — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state. (Here are some pictures of family patriarch Kartikeya Sarabhai welcoming Melania and Donald Trump in the presence of Modi on the US President’s recent visit to India).
An inspection of the company financials of CoSara and its American parent, CODX, suggests that the COVID-19 test would be CODX’s first ever commercially scaled diagnostic product and India, most likely, its first major market.
The novel coronavirus’s exponential global proliferation has driven home the need for extensive testing in every country and nowhere more so than India — which has tested only 20,000 individuals out of a population of over 1.3 billion.
Regulatory authorities around the world have responded by speeding up certification for companies and laboratories rushing to bring a reliable test to market. Doctors and health experts have supported this decision to expedite regulatory approvals, even as they caution that the headlong rush to make more tests available should be accompanied by enough oversight to ensure these tests work reliably. As regulators around the world strive to find this balance, tiny firms with no proven track record such as CODX see an opportunity to transform their fortunes.
Once China made the genetic blueprint of the coronavirus publicly available in January this year, researchers say designing a detection test was relatively easy in theory. In practice, producing an accurate, stable, reliable and replicable testing product at commercial scale is not so easy — raising the question of whether biotech startups such as CODX, which had a relatively small research budget of about $ 1.3 million this year, will be able deliver on their promises.
On March 24, the Indian Council of Medical Research announced it had evaluated 14 different testing kits, including one developed by the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi; only three were found to be 100% accurate. Among those that failed were three tests made by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche.
“Because the stakes are so high, we don’t want to cut corners,” said Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, Associate Chairman of Medicine for Translational Research and Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Cincinnati.
“We need to do it urgently and we need to do it right,” Dr. Fichtenbaum said, stressing that it was very important to develop tests as fast as possible, but also to ensure that these tests were reliable and accurate.
Veena Kohli, president of the Association of Diagnostic Manufacturers of India, who has decades of experience in setting up diagnostic kit manufacturing plants, said there was a big difference between devising a working prototype and manufacturing a commercial product in large quantities.
“Up-scaling is really an art. You may get beautiful results in a small batch manufactured, but you need expertise and experience to be able to produce reliable tests with large quantities,” said Kohli, who is also the CEO of Vanguard Diagnostics. Test kits, she said, must be equally accurate when identifying both — the presence and absence of the virus.
“This is very important as a single false negative can spread the virus, while a false positive can spread panic,” Kohli said. “Apart from sensitivity and specificity, stability is equally important for a commercial kit. When you design an assay, you have to stabilise it to ensure that it works as per the claims throughout its stated shelf-life.”