A $10 covid-19 test? Walmart heirs back startup developing at-home tests

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NowDiagnostics Inc., based 20 miles south of Walmart’s corporate headquarters, has filed requests for emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a Covid-19 antibody blood test, according to the Springdale, Ark., company.

It is also developing two at-home Covid-19 tests that would use a patient’s salvia and deliver results in minutes, said Chief Executive Kevin Clark. One of those would be an antigen test that looks for virus proteins to diagnose an active infection and the other an antibody test, which looks for an immune response that can signal a previous infection.

None of the tests have been authorized by the FDA for use.

For several years Walmart has talked with NowDiagnostics about selling tests for ailments like the flu in its stores, as part of a push to offer more fixed-priced health-care services and products. Those discussions expanded during the pandemic to include Covid-19 diagnostic and serologic tests if they pass regulatory muster, people familiar with the discussions said.

NowDiagnostics is one of many biotechnology and diagnostic companies racing to develop easy-to-use at-home tests for Covid-19. To date, those tests have faced hurdles including ensuring users know how to collect high-quality samples and process them in a way that delivers accurate results.

While saliva samples are used for diagnostic PCR tests run in labs, and collecting spit is less invasive than swabbing a person’s nose or throat, no saliva-based rapid tests have yet secured emergency approval. OraSure Technologies Inc., which has tried to create a saliva-based rapid antigen test, recently shifted to making a test that relies on a nasal swab.

“As research and development progressed, we found we could achieve greater sensitivity, and the best possible accuracy, by using samples collected with a simple, fast swab just inside of the nostril,” said Dr. Stephen Tang, OraSure’s chief executive.

The FDA this week approved the first at-home Covid-19 test that includes a nasal swab people can administer themselves and receive results in minutes. The company that makes the tests, Lucira Health Inc., said it plans to roll them out nationally by spring, likely costing about $50 apiece. Lucira plans to eventually sell its test online and deliver it overnight with a medical professional’s prescription.

NowDiagnostics aims to sell each of its three Covid-19 tests for under $10, said Mr. Clark.

Investors in NowDiagnostics include members of the Walton family through Arkansas-based venture capital firm NewRoad Capital Partners, according to people familiar with the matter. NowDiagnostics investors also include several former Walmart executives, said these people.

A spokeswoman for the Walton family declined to comment. Mr. Clark declined to discuss the Waltons, saying the company has investors from across the country. NewRoad declined to comment on individual investors.

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