Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network launches with boost from Bill Gates, Amazon and volunteers

Alan Boyle
The Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network will rely on at-home testing for a wide spectrum of Seattle-area residents. (Photo via SCAN / Seattle-King County Public Health)

The scientific sleuths who tracked down the origins of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak in the Seattle area have announced a new initiative to crack the case wide-open — and they’re signing up volunteers for self-testing at home.

So many volunteers responded in the first few hours that the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network, or SCAN, reached its capacity for today and told people they’ll have to check back later to sign up.

“Due to limited capacity, we will not be able to test every individual,” SCAN’s principal investigator, University of Washington geneticist Jay Shendure, said in a tweet.

The project draws upon financial support from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and is getting assistance with infrastructure and logistics from Amazon Care, a healthcare program for Amazon employees in the Seattle area.

SCAN is an outgrowth of the Seattle Flu Study, which has been using genetic analysis to track the spread of infectious diseases for more than a year.

Researchers taking part in the study turned their attention to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in February, when they started picking up the virus’ genetic signature in their wide-scale survey of flu infections.

Based on the telltale signs of evolution, seen in multiple instances of COVID-19 infection, the researchers determined that the virus had been spreading for six weeks virtually unnoticed.

Their conclusions were consistent with computer modeling of the virus’ spread, and provided clear evidence that coronavirus could be easily spread by people who weren’t experiencing the flu-like symptoms associated with the disease.

“For the past several weeks the flu study team has been working to adapt their project from a research study to part of our public health response,” the SCAN team said today in a blog post. “They’ve been partnering with Public Health — Seattle & King County, the Washington State Department of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do this, and now that transition is ready to go.”

SCAN, a partnership between the Seattle Flu Study and Seattle-King County Public Health, will conduct focused, representative testing of the Seattle-King County population, using self-swab sampling kits that have been approved by the Washington State Department of Health for emergency use. Samples will be analyzed from people in a cross-section of neighborhoods, including adults as well as children, people who are showing symptoms as well as people who aren’t.

Organizers emphasized that their surveillance program doesn’t take the place of traditional medical care or evaluation by healthcare providers. “Those who do not feel well or suspect they might have COVID-19 should stay home, contact their healthcare provider, and follow public health guidance,” they said.

But the organizers are seeking people to participate in the project, in parallel with standard public health practices:

“You can play an important role in SCAN. We’re asking people — whether they show symptoms or not — to visit and sign up. You’ll answer a few questions, starting with your zip code. We’ll send swab kits to those we can, focusing on the people needed to get the most representative picture possible of what’s happening in our region.

“Once you receive your kit, simply follow the enclosed instructions and return your swab to SCAN. If you test positive for COVID-19, you’ll be contacted by a SCAN team member working with Public Health.”

“Despite the rapid onset and growth of this outbreak it has been hard to understand or predict its true extent and impact,” said Jeff Duchin, health officer for Seattle-King County Public Health. “By testing a broad sample of people in different communities, we’ll have a more detailed understanding of where the virus exists and who is being affected. This is important information that can help us learn about the true severity of infection, whether the community measures being taken to reduce its spread are working or need to be adjusted, and when, eventually, the number of COVID-19 cases are finally in decline.”

For now, SCAN can handle testing of up to 300 swab-and-send kits each day, in addition to about 100 clinical residual samples.

SCAN is being funded by Gates Ventures, the private office of Bill Gates, and is getting technical guidance from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other public health experts.

Gates is also a supporter of the Seattle Flu Study, which was developed by the Brotman Baty Institute in collaboration with UW Medicine, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Children’s.

Amazon Care is assisting with the delivery and pickup of sample kits in the Seattle area. It will receive requests for self-swab kits via SCAN, provide specially trained couriers to distribute the kits to homes, and pick up the kits for delivery to UW Medicine’s labs.

“Responding to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 crisis must be a community effort and requires support from both the private and public sectors,” Kristen Helton, director of Amazon Care, said in an emailed statement. “We are grateful to be surrounded by a strong community of public health, global health and academic leaders and are eager to leverage Amazon Care’s infrastructure and logistics capabilities to support this local effort.”

Amazon emphasized that the effort makes use of couriers who have been trained in the handling of medical samples, with particular emphasis on COVID-19. Amazon’s broader delivery network has not been engaged.

The Bellevue, Wash.-based Institute for Disease Modeling is providing data modeling support for the project, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is lending in-person technical assistance.

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