UCLA's $10 Test Is Helping SoCal Schools Monitor Viruses as They Reopen

Keerthi Vedantam

Keerthi Vedantam is a bioscience reporter at dot.LA. She cut her teeth covering everything from cloud computing to 5G in San Francisco and Seattle. Before she covered tech, Keerthi reported on tribal lands and congressional policy in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on Twitter, Clubhouse (@keerthivedantam) or Signal at 408-470-0776.

UCLA's $10 Test Is Helping SoCal Schools Monitor Viruses as They Reopen
Photo by Mira Kireeva on Unsplash

Several Southern California schools and universities will be testing every student and employee returning to the classroom for COVID-19 and other viruses in an attempt to thwart an outbreak.

The effort is being led by SwabSeq, the UCLA-based sequencing platform that released an FDA-approved COVID-19 test last fall. Its goal is to avoid the mad scramble schools and public health officials went through at the beginning of the pandemic trying to find and isolate cases with very little infrastructure.


The plans come as the Biden administration pumps $10 billion into testing in preparation for a mass reopening of schools.

It's a stark shift in the way school officials handle viral illness — simply sending people home for a few days until they get better. But experts say as the country tries to rein in the coronavirus health officials will need to quickly distinguish between the deadly disease and other viral infections.

"We think that'll be really useful moving forward because we'll want to know, with flu season, what are people infected with? Is it the flu or is it COVID?" said Dr. Eleazar Eskin, the UCLA chair of the Department of Computational Medicine and one of the scientists behind SwabSeq.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to soon release updated guidance on testing to identify and track asymptomatic transmission of COVID.

SwabSeq's technology, which can process samples and return results within 24 hours, can be repurposed for viruses beyond the novel coronavirus, and by fall will be able to test teachers and students for all kinds of respiratory viruses, like the common flu.

Other COVID test manufactures are expected to come online soon as the Food and Drug Administration makes it easier for developers to seek emergency authorization on over-the-counter and at home COVID tests.

But Eskin said what distinguishes SwabSeq is its ability to test multiple respiratory viruses at a cost of $10 per test.

The platform has partnered with the University of California, Santa Barbara, Pepperdine and Caltech, along with some schools, to test people on a weekly or biweekly basis. It has begun sending tubes and funnels for saliva tests to the schools.

Already, it has processed nearly 100,000 coronavirus tests and is working with the California Department of Public Health to sequence positive samples for variants. Most of those are on UCLA's own campus.

"We're just thinking of, 'what do we wish we had in place in March of 2020 that could've made the outcome different with COVID-19?'" Eskin said. "And we want this project to basically put that technology infrastructure in place so that that doesn't happen again."

SwabSeq is leveraging two decades of genomic sequencing technology to test for coronavirus variants and other respiratory viruses, like the ever-changing flu that prompts a yearly vaccine. Researchers will sequence these genomes to map out what strains are whipping through the community by fall.

Mapping the genome sequence of virus variants early is the first step towards understanding how deadly or transmissive certain variants are, and seeing how effective vaccines will be in containing them.

"What those sequences do is they allow us to monitor those changes and see: how has it affected the behavior of the virus? Does it make it easier to spread? Does it make it more deadly?" said Dr. Timothy Brewer, an epidemiology professor at UCLA. "And where we really care about the changes is, do they affect the response of the immune system or the efficacy of the vaccine?"

Indeed, the World Health Organization said there were 13 different strains of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China even before cases popped up across the globe. And new strains that have emerged from Brazil and the U.K. have the ability to spread faster and evade vaccines.

The flu season at its peak killed 80,000 Americans in 2018, but was especially mild last year thanks to masks, hand washing and social distancing.

SwabSeq offers a COVID-19 test billed as the sweet spot between rapid antigen tests (which have high inaccuracy rates), and the more reliable polymerase chain reaction tests, which often take longer. Antigen tests look for proteins while the PCR tests for molecules but often need to extract RNA.

SwabSeq analyzes saliva samples without having to extract RNA, which allows the company to give accurate results quicker in a matter of 24 hours.

The test costs $20 right now, but Eskin says, with scale, SwabSeq could get it down to $10, making it useful and accessible for schools, especially as children are hotbeds for viruses and other bugs that spread around the classroom. Its COVID-19 test has already been administered to nearly 100,000.

"What we want to eventually do is set it up so the SwabSeq lab will be able to identify all the samples we get, we'll figure out what virus they're infected with and then also sequence the virus," Eskin said. "Kind of what we wish we had in place a year ago, because then we would have had a much clearer idea of what we're dealing with."

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🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
Image Source: Joby Aviation

🔦 Spotlight

Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

For LA residents, this development holds exciting implications for future transportation options. Joby's technology could potentially enable direct flights from LA to destinations like San Francisco or San Diego without the need to visit conventional airports, offering a cleaner and more convenient alternative to current travel methods. The company's progress in both battery-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft positions it at the forefront of next-generation aviation, promising to revolutionize urban and regional mobility.

Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.


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Fuel Innovation: 7 Unforgettable Team Building Experiences in LA
Image Source: Discover LA

In today's competitive business landscape, team building activities have emerged as a crucial tool for fostering a positive work environment, enhancing productivity, and crucially, improving employee retention. Studies have shown that such activities help employees feel valued, with one report indicating that 93% of those who felt appreciated were more motivated at work. Importantly, team building events may improve retention rates, as employees who feel connected to their colleagues and company culture are more likely to stay long-term. With these benefits in mind, let's explore some of the most engaging and effective team building activities available in Los Angeles.

Pickleball

Image Source: Modern Luxury Angelino

Pickleball is a fantastic team bonding activity because of the easy-to-grasp rules and gentle pace make it perfect for everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. The game thrives on communication and teamwork, as players must collaborate and strategize to outplay their opponents, boosting team cohesion. Plus, the lively, fast-paced action sparks friendly competition and laughter, creating a fun and spirited atmosphere that brings everyone closer together. Los Angeles boasts numerous pickleball courts that are easy to rent if you have your own equipment. If you need additional assistance organizing your pickleball outing, there are plenty of full-service companies ready to handle every detail for you.

Resources: Pickle Pop, Corporate Pickle


Escape Room

Image Source: The Escape Game

Escape rooms are a great way to build camaraderie. They require participants to work together, combining their problem-solving skills and creativity to overcome challenges and puzzles. The immersive and time-sensitive nature of escape rooms fosters collaboration and communication. Additionally, the shared experience of tackling complex tasks and reaching a common goal helps build trust and foster positive emotions among colleagues.

Resources: The Escape Game, 60Out


Day Trip to Catalina Island

Image Source: Love Catalina

Catalina Island is a perfect day trip for a team because it provides a break from the usual work environment, allowing team members to relax and connect in a new setting. Shared experiences during the trip, such as exploring new places and participating in fun activities, help build stronger relationships and foster a sense of camaraderie. There are numerous team-building activities such as an arboreal obstacle course, an island tour, scavenger hunts and more.

Resources: Catalina Island Group Activities


Top Golf

Image Source: Topgolf

Topgolf is an excellent team building event because it provides an inclusive, relaxed atmosphere that accommodates players of all skill levels, fostering personal connections and improving team morale. The unique blend of competition and entertainment creates an ideal setting for building trust, enhancing communication, and revealing hidden skills among team members. Additionally, Topgolf offers structured team building packages with guided activities, discussion prompts, and lessons on culture, change, collaboration, and strategy, making it a versatile and effective platform for strengthening relationships and boosting overall team performance.

Resources: Topgolf El Segundo


SoFi Stadium Tour

Image Source: Discover LA

A SoFi Stadium tour offers a unique, behind-the-scenes experience of one of the world's most advanced sports venues, allowing team members to explore exclusive areas like premium suites, team locker rooms, and the player tunnel together. The tour provides a shared, memorable experience that can foster camaraderie and spark conversations among team members, regardless of their interest in sports. Additionally, the stadium's state-of-the-art features and impressive architecture can inspire creativity and innovation, while the group setting encourages interaction and collaboration, making it an engaging and enjoyable activity for teams of various sizes and backgrounds

Resources: SoFi Stadium Group Tours


Corporate Volunteering

Image Source: L.A. Works

Volunteer work serves as an excellent team building activity by uniting employees around a shared, meaningful cause, fostering a sense of purpose and collective accomplishment. It provides opportunities for team members to collaborate in new ways, often revealing hidden strengths and leadership qualities that may not be apparent in the regular work environment. Additionally, engaging in community service can boost morale, enhance the company's reputation, and instill a sense of pride among employees, leading to improved workplace relationships and increased job satisfaction.

Resources: Habitat for Humanity, L.A. Works, VolunteerMatch


Corporate Improv Sessions

Image Source: Improv for the People

A corporate improv class encourages spontaneity, creativity, and quick thinking, skills that are valuable in the workplace. It promotes active listening and collaboration, as participants must work together to create scenes and respond to unexpected situations, fostering better communication and trust among team members. Additionally, the playful and often humorous nature of improv helps break down barriers, reduces stress, and creates a shared positive experience that can improve team morale and cohesion long after the event.

Resources: Improv-LA, Groundlings, Improv for the People

🎬 Paramount and Skydance Are Back On
Image Source: Paramount

Happy Friday Los Angeles! Hope you all had a fantastic Fourth!!

🔦 Spotlight

Paramount and Skydance Media have rekindled talks to merge after negotiations abruptly halted in June. The proposed deal, contingent on approval from Paramount’s board, aims to combine Paramount’s extensive media holdings—including CBS, MTV, and Nickelodeon—with Skydance’s film expertise showcased in hits like "Top Gun: Maverick." This merger signals a potential transformation in the media landscape, positioning the new entity to compete more effectively amid challenges from streaming services and the decline of traditional cable TV.

Led by Shari Redstone, Paramount’s controlling shareholder via National Amusements, the deal represents a pivot towards revitalizing Paramount’s strategic direction amidst financial struggles and shareholder concerns. The involvement of major investors like RedBird Capital Partners and David Ellison underscores the financial backing aimed at stabilizing Paramount’s operations and addressing its $14 billion debt burden. Importantly, the agreement includes provisions to protect National Amusements from potential legal challenges, addressing previous hurdles that stalled earlier negotiations.

The deal also includes a 45-day period for Paramount to explore alternative offers, highlighting continued interest from other potential buyers like Barry Diller’s IAC and media executive Edgar Bronfman Jr. This flurry of activity underscores the significant stakeholders’ interest in Paramount’s future and its potential as a key player in a rapidly evolving media industry.


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  • Sidecar Health, a startup that offers personalized health insurance plans to businesses that allow members to see any doctor and pay directly at the time of service, raised a $165M Series D led by Koch Disruptive Technologies. - learn more

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