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Nonprofit aims to get COVID-19 field tests, N95 masks and more to healthcare workers without markups

Darrell Etherington

A new Sydney-based nonprofit volunteer organization called RapidWard launched this week, with a focus on getting critical medical supplies from producers in China to healthcare professionals, doctors, hospitals and governments worldwide who need them. The group, founded by serial entrepreneur and advisor Milton Zhou, has ample supply chain experience and recognized the need for a solution that focused on establishing distribution pathways that eschew markups in order to make supplies available at-cost.

Zhou, an Australian-born founder of Chinese descent who leads Australian sustainable energy company Maoneng as CEO, has been following the coronavirus pandemic and the impact it has had in terms of incurring panic buying and hoarding behavior for much-needed medical equipment. Through existing personal connections, Zhou says that he has access to a factory in China that produces a type of test kit used broadly in that nation's efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 (and approved by its equivalent of the FDA).

These kits can produce results in just 15 minutes, using a serological assay that looks for the presence of antibodies in a patient's bloodstream. This differs from the PCR type of test that is currently in use in the U.S., which looks for the presence of viral DNA in patient mucus samples collected via swab. While the serological test can't detect COVID-19 during the incubation period, it is reliable once symptoms begin to present, and could help greatly with in-situ diagnostic efforts for patients already presenting with known indicators -- freeing up PCR tests for broader use, including asymptomatic screening.

These kits can be provided in volumes of 70,000 per day by RapidWard's suppliers, the company says, and will be available at the cost of production and shipping of $12 per test. Zhou said that RapidWard is also sourcing lab-free 15-minute saliva-based tests that are in use in both Korea and China, which can be supplied at a volume of up to 20,000 units per day.

RapidWard's supplies also include disposable N95 masks that meet the standards of the FDA and the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health, and its partners can produce them (to FDA specs) at a volume of up to 100,000 per day. As with the tests, RapidWard's focus is on sourcing and supplying these at-cost, without any markups or profits for the organization itself.

Right now, the company is focused on working with and supplying official health organizations and governments in need, but it does have a means for individuals to sign up to register interest, as it plans to offer equipment directly to consumers should supply ever catch up to a point where it's meeting critical health professional demand and that becomes possible.

RapidWard is encouraging any government or medical institution in need of supplies to get in touch. Even if it can't provision directly, Zhou says they're interested in working with these parties to sort out supply chains in China wherever they're able.