Basic Health International Founder and CEO Dr. Miriam Cremer, center, pictured here with her colleagues in China. Her nonprofit organization is working with a bio-medical engineering company to create a new COVID-19 test. Photo courtesy of Dr. Miriam Cremer.

Basic Health International (BHI), a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit working to eliminate cervical cancer is teaming up with a biomedical engineering company to create a new COVID-19 test that’s faster and more cost-effective than the one currently being used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Given the urgency of making a reliable test, BHI launched a fundraising campaign with a target goal of $100,000.

Miriam Cremer, president and founder of the organization — which is headquartered in Bakery Square and operates satellite locations in New York and El Salvador — says Atila BioSystems in Silicon Valley, Calif., is developing the nasal swab test. BHI, which,  collaborated with the startup on a test for human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer. The company has an existing proprietary platform, AMP-Fire, that can quickly, cheaply and accurately test for the existence of viruses. The test costs approximately $8 to manufacture.

About 700 samples a day can be processed through a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine, with results available in 45 minutes to an hour (the current COVID-19 test takes days to provide patients with results). The biggest time saver? Unlike the CDC’s test, AMP-Fire does not require the use of DNA/RNA extraction reagents that are the limiting factor in making testing more widely available in the U.S.

The team anticipates emergency use approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week. BHI will be working with the Medical College of Wisconsin and Dartmouth–Hitchcock Medical Center to validate the test by comparing it to the current CDC test. Approximately 200 specimens will be used to assure adequate sensitivity/specificity and the results of the pilot will be written up for publication and dissemination. Cremer says she hopes to have the test validated and PCR machines in place in El Salvador by the end of May.

Cremer says the Central American country is under military lockdown, with a small number of intensive care units serving a population of six million people. Once details of the program are finalized with the Ministry of Health, BHI will use the AMP-Fire test to screen approximately 1,000 individuals to determine feasibility in a low-resource area.

Atila’s AMP-Fire, along with BHI’s experience with large-scale virus testing in low-resource settings, will help to deploy much-needed COVID-19 screening to the most vulnerable populations in the U.S. and other countries. Cremer, a Point Breeze resident, says the test is a good fit for outlying hospitals around Pittsburgh, which, at the moment, only have a few testing centers.

Lab partners in Pennsylvania, especially those in rural areas with underserved populations, can contact BHI via email to inquire about the test.

Cremer is glad BHI can contribute its expertise to ending the COVID-19 crisis and, in the future, use the test to detect HPV and other viruses. She hopes people around the world will do their part, stay home and donate to the cause.

“I think COVID-19 is all anybody’s going to be thinking about until we’re out of the woods,” she says. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘How can we make a difference both locally and globally?’”

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.