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Study behind updated FDA guidance shows self-swab tests are as effective as those done by clinicians

By Darrell Etherington

Earlier this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would be updating its guidance to allow self-swab tests for COVID-19, in which a patient collects a sample from their own nose for a health professional to test. On Wednesday, UnitedHealth Group revealed the results of a peer-reviewed large-scale study that provided the science behind the decision to switch to the less-invasive sample collection method.

The self-swab process doesn’t change where FDA-approved testing can happen — this expanded guidance only applies to the method of collection, meaning at-home swab-based PCR tests that many startups had hoped to bring to market are still on hold. But even though people still have to go to either clinics or drive-through testing sites to get a COVID-19 test done, the ability to self-swab offers more comfort, as well as real advantages when it comes to the health and safety of the clinicians and front-line healthcare workers staffing the sites.

This new study shows that not only does self-swabbing lessen the chance of someone with COVID-19 passing on their infection to a healthcare worker, it’s also just as effective as a test where clinicians collected the sample from much deeper inside a person’s nasal cavity. UnitedHeatlh worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as Quest Diagnostics and the University of Washington to conduct the study, which covered almost 500 patients who received tests at OptumCare diagnostic facilities in the state of Washington.

There are other benefits to the self-swab method as well, including eliminating the need for specifically trained medical professionals who have to administer the tests at point-of-care. This should help with clearing up backlogs owing to staffing, at least, though supplies and bottlenecks due to demand are going to persist as more people seek diagnosis.

Amazon Care to provide delivery and pick-up of at-home COVID-19 test sample kits in Seattle trial

By Darrell Etherington

Amazon is going to be working with a new research initiative backed in part by the Gates Foundation that will distribute at-home coronavirus assessment kits, and then deliver the collected samples to FDA-approved test facilities. Amazon Care, the health arm formed by Amazon initially for internal employee care, will be handling the delivery of the kits, as well as transportation of collected samples to the test labs, as first reported by CNBC.

While the FDA updated its guidance just a few days ago to specifically exclude at-home testing from the Emergency Use Authorization that is in place to enable broadened private lab testing of potential COVID-19 cases, the arrangement with the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network (SCAN) and Amazon Care bypasses use of the traditional mail or package delivery network. The Amazon Care drivers who are doing the test kit drop-offs and deliveries are specifically trained in proper handling of sensitive medical materials, and the SCAN project is for a limited research endeavor undertaken in order to help “understand how coronavirus is spreading in the Greater Seattle area.”

Availability of kits will be limited, but will include the kind of swab testing that is being conducted at drive-through testing facilities in the U.S. Should a sample test positive for COVID-19, the person who provided the sample to SCAN will be contacted by a healthcare worker for next steps, including advice on how to seek treatment and prevent transmission.

SCAN is the result of a partnership by Seattle & King County’s Public Health department, as well as a team of hospitals and health organizations that created the Seattle Flu Study, a similar project meant to study the spread of the traditional seasonal flu within the community. The research and data modeling work done for that study have been adapted to the study of COVID-19, and the flu study has been put on hold while researchers focus on the pandemic instead.

Zuckerberg details the ways Facebook and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are responding to COVID-19

By Jonathan Shieber

Mark Zuckerberg has outlined some of the steps that Facebook and his family’s non-profit, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are taking to respond to the spread of both the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 and viral misinformation about the illness, in a statement posted earlier this evening.

Facebook’s response focuses on three areas: providing accurate information; stopping misinformation; and providing data for research (which is not creepy at all coming from Facebook).

To provide accurate information, Facebook is directing users who search for information on the coronavirus on its platform to the World Health Organization or local health authority through an automatic pop-up. That notification on information is also automatically populated into the news feed for everyone who is in a country where the World Health Organization has reported a case of person-to-person transmission.

“Given the developing situation, we’re working with national ministries of health and organizations like the WHO, CDC and UNICEF to help them get out timely, accurate information on the coronavirus,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We’re giving the WHO as many free ads as they need for their coronavirus response along with other in-kind support. We’ll also give support and millions more in ad credits to other organizations too and we’ll be working closely with global health experts to provide additional help if needed.”

To stop the spread of misinformation on the platform, Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook was removing false claims and conspiracy theories flagged by global health organizations and the company is blocking people from running ads that try to exploit the fears of the public by pitching snake oil cures.

Finally, and perhaps most problematically, Facebook is “looking at how people can use our services to help contribute to broader efforts to contain the outbreak,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Researchers are already using aggregated and anonymized Facebook data — including mobility data and population density maps — to better understand how the virus is spreading.”

There are open questions around what controls Facebook has put in place to restrict who has access to the anonymized data and what users might be able to do with that data — or how long they can maintain access once the threat from the virus abates. Facebook had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Technology from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is also helping with the medical efforts to halt the spread of the disease. Working with the Gates Foundation, researchers financed by the two organizations were able to fully sequence the genome of the virus that causes COVID-19 in a matter of days, making it easier for people infected with the virus to be identified.

That same team created a public version of the IDSeq tool so scientists could study the full genome in the context of other pathogens, Zuckerberg wrote.

Chan-Zuckerberg’s Biohub has also been working to develop a cell atlas, which maps different cell types in the body. Some researchers are using that atlas to try and assess how the coronavirus damages the lungs and identify potential treatments that could limit lung damage caused by the virus.

“There’s more we can do to help people feel less isolated and help one another and we’re working on some ideas we’ll share in the next few weeks, but for now the focus is on slowing the spread of the outbreak itself,” Zuckerberg wrote. “This is a difficult time for a lot of people and I’m thinking of everyone affected by this — the people who are sick or quarantined, their friends and family and of course the healthcare workers who are always on the frontlines of any outbreak. We’ll share more updates soon.”

Well, Bill Gates is never going to buy a Tesla now

By Connie Loizos

Elon Musk is not one to mince words, but he may have just lost a potential customer because of a cutting tweet.

That customer is renowned big deal Bill Gates, who sat down recently with YouTuber Marques Brownlee, who joined the platform in 2009 and has amassed more than 10 million viewers. Gates and Brownlee have met before, and the idea was to have Gates discuss some of what the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has planned for this year, which marks the 20th anniversary of the organization.

Unsurprisingly, the conversation touched on climate change and in pretty short order sustainable transportation, with Brownlee bringing up Tesla and asking if, when “premium” electric cars grow more affordable, they’ll also become more ubiquitous.

Gates didn’t exactly malign Tesla with his answer, telling Brownlee: “The premium today is there, but over the next decade — except that the [mileage] range will still be a little bit less — that premium will come to zero. [When we look at all the sectors addressing climate change] passenger cars is certainly one of the most hopeful, and Tesla, if you had to name one company that’s help drive that, it’s them.”

What Gates did next, however, did not sit well with Musk, apparently. He expressed excitement about his first new electric car, which happens not to be a Tesla.

Said Gates: “Now all the car companies, including some new ones, are moving super fast to do electric cars. The biggest concern is, will the consumers overcome that range anxiety? I jut got a Porsche Taycan, which is an electric car. I have to say, its a premium price car, but it’s very, very cool. That’s my first electric car and I’m enjoying it a lot.”

Musk felt compelled to weigh in with a  tweet after learning about the exchange.

Specifically, a Twitter account associated with an unofficial Tesla newsletter, tweeted “a lot of people are going to watch the interview and they are going to trust Bill’s word for it and not even consider EVs. Why? Because Bill Gates is a really smart guy!”

To which Musk responded, “My conversations with Gates have been underwhelming tbh.”

My conversations with Gates have been underwhelming tbh

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 18, 2020

It’s funny, because they are both billionaire geniuses, and it’s unexpected.

It’s also nasty enough that you can guess Gates, a car collector, won’t be buying a Tesla or speaking in a positive way about the company any time soon.

Memphis Meats raised $161 million from SoftBank Group, Norwest and Temasek

By Jonathan Shieber

Memphis Meats, a developer of technologies to manufacture meat, seafood and poultry from animal cells, has raised $161 million in financing from investors including Softbank Group, Norwest and Temasek, the investment fund backed by the government of Singapore.

The investment brings the company’s total financing to $180 million. Previous investors include individual and institutional investors like Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Threshold Ventures, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Finistere, Future Ventures, Kimbal Musk, Fifty Years and CPT Capital.

Other companies including Future Meat Technologies, Aleph Farms, Higher Steaks, Mosa Meat and Meatable are pursuing meat grown from cell cultures as a replacement for animal husbandry, whose environmental impact is a large contributor to deforestation and climate change around the world.

Innovations in computational biology, bio-engineering and materials science are creating new opportunities for companies to develop and commercialize technologies that could replace traditional farming with new ways to produce foods that have a much lower carbon footprint and bring about an age of superabundance, according to investors.

The race is on to see who will be the first to market with a product.

“For the entire industry, an investment of this size strengthens confidence that this technology is here today rather than some far-off future endeavor. Once there is a “proof of concept” for cultivated meat — a commercially available product at a reasonable price point — this should accelerate interest and investment in the industry,” said Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of the Good Food Institute, in an email. “This is still an industry that has sprung up almost overnight and it’s important to keep a sense of perspective here. While the idea of cultivated meat has been percolating for close to a century, the very first prototype was only produced six years ago.”

Catalyst Fund gets $15M from JP Morgan, UK Aid to back 30 EM fintech startups

By Jake Bright

The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.

The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.

That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.

Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.

“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.

Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.

Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.

Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.

African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s startups, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.

That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.

The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.

By several estimates, Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale finance solutions on the continent.

Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech related startups on the continent.

This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.

For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation

“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.

This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.

More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts any of its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets like Nigeria, India and Mexico.

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