The race to unravel the United States’ biggest coronavirus outbreak

Some of this burden could soon be relieved as the Seattle Flu Study changes course. This week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle said that it will furnish the study with another US$5 million. People who feel ill but aren’t in dire need of hospital care can now order the swab kit from the study website. “We’re ramping up to screening 570 tests a day, and hope to do 1,000 per day in a few weeks,” says Lea Starita, a genomicist on the project at UW Medicine. She’s scrambling to find researchers to join the lab and is purchasing new tools. “I’ve been spending money this week like it’s nothing,” she says, listing $390,000 in equipment and reagents off the top of her head.

Dan Wattendorf, who directs efforts to create biotechnology solutions at the Gates Foundation, hopes that people with bearable illnesses will stay at home and order the kit, instead of going to hospitals where they could transmit the virus — or catch it. And if people test positive but aren’t feeling terrible, says Wattendorf, they can isolate themselves. That could prevent an outbreak from growing. “I don’t think we will shut down cities like they did in Wuhan,” Wattendorf says. “But can we have a precision quarantine to keep people from transmitting the disease?”

As the swab kits pile up in Chu’s lab, she mentions more than 2,500 samples collected this year for the flu study. Some might contain the new coronavirus and genomic analyses of those viruses could reveal how they circulated undetected around Seattle. But with the ever-mounting workload, there’s no time to analyse them now.