DataRobot, the Boston-based tech company focused on artificial intelligence software, is moving into the business of monitoring coronavirus infections with a product it says will help businesses, governments, and health systems detect early signs of contagion.
The company has unveiled a testing kit that scans for antigens ― bits of viral protein ― that could be a sign of asymptomatic infection. DataRobot said its technology can be used to let people know their level of risk for transmitting the virus, and to help determine the prevalence of cases in a community.
“What we really focused on here is how do we get the information we need to allow for better decision making on an individual and a population level,” said Sally Embrey, DataRobot’s vice president of public health and health technologies.
The program, called ContagionNET, allows participants to regularly administer their own nasal swabs and analyze them with a device that will look for antigens related to the virus that causes COVID-19. Users can use their smartphones to interpret the results.
But the company emphasized that the program is not a coronavirus test. It does not diagnose or even screen for infections, and has not been approved by federal regulators to do so. People who find they have some amount of antigens from the coronavirus will have to get additional tests to confirm whether they are actually infected.
Instead, DataRobot hopes its latest product can be a low-cost, high volume source of information about the course of the pandemic — especially in its later stages, when increasing vaccinations and declining numbers of confirmed cases could allow for more targeted public health measures. ContagionNET and other so-called surveillance programs could provide broad data detailing when and where people are showing signs of asymptomatic infection.
Embrey said better awareness of where there are signs of infection could help slow or stop outbreaks caused by new variants of the virus, the potential for gradual erosion of immunity among people who have had COVID-19, and the likelihood that many people will refuse to be vaccinated.
“We certainly don’t think that COVID-19 is over,” Embrey said. “We are seeing trends that are going down. However, with the unknowns with variants, we don’t know how that’s going to evolve over the next couple months.”
People who use the ContagionNET program will get a pack of 15 swabs to check themselves periodically, with the timing determined by an algorithm. About 250 people already are using the system — many of them DataRobot employees. But Embrey said the company has the ability to scale up quickly, potentially giving it the ability to analyze millions of swabs.
The company has been involved in other aspects of the pandemic response, helping with data related to the recruitment in participants for vaccine trials, for instance.
DataRobot has about 50 people working on ContagionNet, but it does not anticipate making money from the effort. The company said it only expects the program to cover its costs, and that the current goal is to get the price for the organizations who use it down to about $3 for each swab produced and analyzed. The price now is between $6 and $7.