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Bill Gates at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2020 annual meeting in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

A report says the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is preparing to fund at-home testing kits for the novel coronavirus in Seattle.

However, the Gates Foundation cautions that the plans aren’t final.

The kits, to be available in the “coming weeks,” would quickly identify hot spots where the disease is spreading, according to The Seattle Times. The newspaper quotes Scott Dowell, leader of coronavirus response at the Gates Foundation, as saying it the initiative “has enormous potential to turn the tide of the epidemic.”

Dowell cautions in the story, however, that there are many details to work out, and a launch date hasn’t been set.

In a statement to GeekWire, the Gates Foundation said, “The Seattle Times article today addressed the potential to adapt the Seattle Flu Study to support local public health agencies in the greater Seattle area in detecting COVID-19.  Our team has and will continue to actively explore ways that we can contribute to local response through the application of the study. While we’re working quickly with our partners to determine what’s possible, details of this support have not yet been finalized.”

The Seattle Flu Study is a two-year old research initiative, based at the University of Washington and funded with $20 million from Bill Gates’ private office. Partners in the initiative are the Brotman Baty Institute, UW Medicine, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and Seattle Children’s.

The Gates Foundation has committed $100 million to the global response to COVID-19, and last week announced another $5 million “to help public health agencies in the greater Seattle region enhance their capacity to detect novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in King County, Snohomish County and other surrounding communities.”

The Microsoft co-founder has been warning for years about the risk of an unchecked epidemic that could result in upwards of 10 million deaths. He says this could be that once-in-a-century pandemic.” As it turns out, the U.S. epicenter is his hometown of Seattle.

The Washington State Department of Health’s daily update on Sunday listed 83 confirmed cases and 17 deaths for King County from COVID-19.

According to the Seattle Times report, people using the home kits would swab their noses, send back samples, and get a response in one to two days. They would fill out online forms about where and with whom they’ve been. Health officials will use that information to get a better sense for where coronavirus is spreading. The program would initially conduct 400 tests a day.

The idea of at-home COVID-19 testing kits was also floated this weekend by researcher and entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg, a pioneer in next-generation DNA sequencing. He acknowledged “all the issues with regulatory approvals I’ll face in many countries,” and tagged the Gates Foundation as part of his thread on the topic.

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