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  • The US has a coronavirus testing problem and it's one reason why the country has fallen behind others in battling the pandemic. 
  • Results can take upwards of a week or more to come back, complicating efforts to effectively track the spread of the virus. 
  • 3M and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are trying to change that. The two organizations are teaming up to develop a rapid-response, paper-based test. 
  • The effort received $500,000 in initial funding from the National Institutes of Health. 
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3M and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are teaming up to try to develop a rapid-response, paper-based test to detect COVID-19, the organizations said on Tuesday. 

The $90 billion maker of N95 masks and the famed engineering school are hoping that combining 3M's manufacturing prowess with MIT's deep research talent will lead to a highly-accurate diagnostic device that can be produced in large quantities — with an ultimate goal of millions of tests a day. 

"It works to the strength of 3M in both our roots in scientific exploration as well as our ability to mass-manufacture," 3M lead researcher Cathy Tarnowski told Business Insider. The duo is first working on creating a "highly-accurate, rapid-response test," she said, and if it succeeds "we'll start scaling ASAP." 

3M is well-adept at rapidly increasing production. When the coronavirus first hit and hospitals experienced a major shortage of critical equipment — like N95 masks — the company immediately began accelerating manufacturing. It's now making 50 million masks per month in the US — up from 35 million just a few months ago — and is hoping to reach 2 billion per year globally by the end of 2020. 

"We have the ability because we have such a great foundation in science and such a great manufacturing foundation that we can be pretty nimble and pivot when something like the COVID pandemic arises," said Tarnowski.

Tarnowski's team is working with MIT researcher Hadley Sikes and her squad on the effort, the latest in a series of collaborations between the two groups. The cohort already received preliminary approval and a $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, the nation's premier federal health research organization. 

The lack of robust testing is one factor that many experts cite as why the US has fallen so far behind other countries in battling the pandemic. While the US has the highest number of individuals tested, it lags when analyzing the total amount based on the overall population

The results of existing tests can take upwards of a week to return, which can complicate efforts to effectively track the spread of the virus. 3M and MIT are hoping to return outcomes in minutes, while still maintaining high levels of accuracy. The paper-based test would be easier to administer than some of the existing ones — like those that rely on swabs inserted deep into a person's nose and require trained health professional to administer. MIT is working on a similar effort to develop a paper-based COVID test in Singapore. 

The teams have no firm deadline of when they are hoping to finalize research, per Tarnowski. "We are trying to move as quickly as possible," she said. 

Tarnowski declined to say whether there would be a cost associated with the test and what the price-point might be. "Our focus really is making sure we have a great test that gives the accuracy that we need," she said.

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