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German diagnostics group Qiagen is aiming to capitalise on consumer confidence in home testing by launching products that detect everyday infections without a visit to a surgery or hospital.
The company, which is in the running to enter the blue-chip Dax index next month, has enjoyed rapid growth thanks to demand for its range of tests for coronavirus and its new variants.
“It completely changed the paradigm for a company like ours,” Thierry Bernard, chief executive, told the Financial Times.
Qiagen’s net profit of $250m in the first six months of the year was almost double that of the same period in 2020, when Covid-19 testing was still limited.
The business was now looking beyond the coronavirus, Bernard said, to direct-to-customer testing kits for everything from influenza to gastrointestinal, respiratory and urinary tract infections.
Funding flooded into the diagnostics industry in 2020 as demand for Covid tests stoked investor interest in the previously unloved corner of healthcare.
Diagnostics start-ups raised a record $4.8bn last year, according to Crunchbase, while shares in companies including market leaders Roche and Thermo Fisher, which tried to buy Qiagen last year, soared.
As well as bringing testing into the home, scientists are working on new technologies to expand diagnostic capabilities, including blood tests to detect early stage cancer. Others are using the gene-editing tool Crispr to create faster and more accurate tests.
Shares in Qiagen have risen 63 per cent since January 2020 but have oscillated in recent months amid uncertain demand for Covid tests.
The company in July cut its earnings and revenue guidance for the year, expecting that vaccination rollouts would cut demand for tests, but Bernard said “volumes of Covid testing [are] already going up once again” in the third quarter. “It seems more and more that this is here to stay at least beyond 2021,” he added.
Qiagen is focusing on collecting saliva or blood samples at home and then processing them in qualified labs in less than half a day, rather than rapid tests that deliver the result directly to the customer.
Bernard warned that there were “a lot of ethical issues” with tests that offer at-home readouts. “If you do a test without any medical control and you are not happy with the result, what do you do with this result?”
“For example, you are Covid-19 positive, but you are absolutely in need — for financial reasons — to work,” the French executive said. “Are you going to tell your employer?”
He added that the social stigma around other diseases could also prevent people from making their test results known to others.
In the near term, the company, based in Hilden, near Düsseldorf, is expanding its line-up of Covid products. It is adding tests that can detect the disease in wastewater, which has been particularly useful in monitoring the most recent outbreak in New Zealand.
It has also submitted for regulatory approval kits that can measure how long T-cell responses, that have been prompted by Covid vaccines, persist.
Initial research has suggested that protection from T-cells lasts longer than that given by antibodies and scientists believe some vaccines may generate more effective T-cell responses than others.
Given the importance of its products in fighting the pandemic, Bernard has called for compulsory vaccination of Qiagen’s 5,000 staff around the world. “We have some countries in Europe where it’s clearly impossible for us to ask someone whether she or he is vaccinated,” he said.
“I believe that companies like Qiagen . . . should be considered exactly as a hospital, as a healthcare provider, and therefore vaccination should be mandatory,” he told the FT.
He added: “I don’t want to go against personal freedom, but I believe that personal freedom stops at the border of collective safety.”