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Yale-sponsored COVID-19 test was partially funded by Fast Grant program

August 26, 2020   /   by John Hollis

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics within Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the faculty director of the Mercatus Center, sought to inspire breakthroughs in the fight against COVID-19 when he launched the Fast Grants program in March. Photo provided.

It’s been hailed by some as the biggest American breakthrough yet in the fight against COVID-19, and played a big role in the successful NBA “bubble” in Orlando. 

SalivaDirect, the robust saliva test developed by a team of Yale University scientists and recently approved by the FDA, might not have been possible without the support of a Fast Grant from the Emergent Ventures program within George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. Additional funding came from the NBA and the NBA Players Association. 

“We provided the Yale team with early financial support, based on the view that quicker, easier, cheaper, and more reliable testing was indeed possible,” said Cowen, a professor of economics within Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the faculty director of the Mercatus Center. “I am delighted to have turned that dream into a reality.” 

The Yale test uses saliva—instead of more invasive respiratory swabs—to test for COVID-19 and will decrease existing costs and testing times. Long delays in getting results and testing shortages have been a problem as the virus has quickly spread. 

“This could be one of the first major game-changers in fighting the pandemic,” tweeted Andy Slavitt, a former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the Obama administration who expects testing capacity to be expanded significantly. “Rarely am I this enthusiastic.… They are turning testing from a bespoke suit to a low-cost commodity.” 

A self-proclaimed “huge NBA fan” who founded the Emergent Ventures program, Cowen hoped to inspire immediate breakthroughs in the fight against COVID-19 when he announced the start of the Fast Grants in March. 

Launched with a $1 million grant from the Thiel Foundation, Emergent Ventures Fast Grants range between $10,000 and $500,000, with decisions about who receives them typically taking less than 14 days before they are quickly dispersed to recipients. 

To date, the Fast Grants program has doled out more than $30 million in more than 160 grants, including several for potential vaccines and treatments for the virus.