CES 2021: Healthcare, technology & COVID-19

In early 2020, Abbott Laboratories recognized the need for COVID-19 testing and used their massive resources to ramp up production quickly.

The company developed 11 tests with 10 months and manufactured 300 million COVID tests. That’s 15 times the number of flu tests Abbott manufactured in 2019, said Andrea Wainer, Abbott's Executive Vice President of Rapid & Molecular Diagnostics, in a recent panel discussion at CES.

Abbott’s BinaxNOW rapid antigen test received FDA approval in December. It’s the first at-home, virtually guided test with results available in minutes. Wainer said it is best in detecting COVID within the first seven days of onset. Abbott partnered with telehealth provider eMED to service the tests.

“The home test required us to look at alternate solutions,” she said. “We looked to telehealth to guide a person to take the test, run it, interpret it, and act on it.”

Abbott projects producing 30 million home tests in the first quarter of 2021 and 90 million in the second quarter. “Heavy” rapid testing needs to be done in conjunction with the vaccine roll-out. Wainer expects the first half of the year to be focused on detection and a move to more antibody testing at the back end of the year, as flu season begins. Antibody testing will provide answers about the vaccine’s effectiveness.

Testing is a critical first line of defense that needs to be used with masking, washing hands, and social distancing, she said. Frequency of testing is important to catch people while they are contagious. She suggested the possibility of on-the-spot “digital entry cards” that show a negative test as a way of entry to schools, concerts, and other public spaces.

Binas NOW
BinaxNow is Abbott's home test for COVID-19.

Technology aids vaccine roll-out

Microsoft has been heavily involved in the logistics side of the vaccine roll-out, according to Dr. David Rhew, Microsoft’s Chief Medical Officer and VP of Global Healthcare.

Starting in May, the company partnered with FedEx to optimize workflows to get real-time info on all package deliveries. FedEx, along with DHL and UPS, have so far delivered 17 million vaccines without much incident. Refrigeration hasn’t been an issue so far, although Dr. Rhew expects challenges when additional vaccines with different requirements are released. But he sees those challenges are relatively minor. The real challenge is getting those vaccines in arms.

The current approach of using healthcare providers, hospitals, and retail clinics to vaccinate the population is insufficient, he said. He sees opportunities in expanding the base to mass-vaccination hubs in arenas and other large venues. Managing the process will be key to avoiding long lines, crowded waiting areas, and frustration among both the public and healthcare professionals.

“Managing the flow of patients coming in and out of the system is going to be incredibly important,” he said. Some of the strategies they’re looking at employing are trying to get in front of the crush of demand. Pre-registration programs, scheduling, and appointment reminders for the first and second dose can all be done through digital technology.

Dr. Rhew sees technology, in particular AI, as a way to augment a health care system that is set up for on-demand use, not scale and volume. Research on internet searches about COVID-19 show that many people are looking for information specific to their situation. Chatbots are a way to ease the burden on the healthcare system by providing evidence-based, individualized guidance, including where to get tested and/or vaccinated. These AI systems can be used as modules on websites or integrated into information systems.

As much as technology like pre-registration and chatbots can help, there is going to be a need for feet on the ground as well, he said. “There are still many people who don’t use electronic tools. We will need to supplement technology with campaigns, going out into the communities to talk with individuals who have concerns.” Chatbots could help these workers have quick access to answers to the questions people have.

Healthcare Bot
Microsoft's Healthcare Bot, used by the CDC, answered around a million COVID questions a day in 2020.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the products at CES speak directly to the pandemic lifestyle and new expectations that come along with it. Lots of masks, air purifiers, and cleaning tech. The difficult part is, with CES being all-digital, it’s impossible to tell how real these concepts are and how well they work. Time will tell.

Project Hazel from Razer
Razer's "world's smartest mask" concept.

Project Hazel by Razer

Razer’s concept design for the “world’s smartest” re-usable N95-class mask features active ventilation and UV sterilization/charging through its storage case. It’s transparent for lip reading and can amplify the speaker’s voice. Filters will be replaceable. There is no price or release date for the mask. According to The Verge, there are still some significant issues to be worked out in the implementation, so we’ll see if this ever actually hits the market.

Gear Airpop Smart Mask CES Pressimage
AirPop's smart mask is designed for people who exercise outside, apparently in smog.

AirPop Active+ Smart Mask

This sensor-embedded mask monitors air quality and tells you what pollutants it has filtered out as well as when to change the filter. Designed for people who exercise outdoors, it also tracks your breaths per minute. All that for just $150 and available soon.

Gear Maskfone pf b8e59cdf drivingmaskfone
It's a mask! It's a phone! It's MaskFone!


This machine-washable fabric mask has an N-95 filter, built-in microphone, and attached earbuds for clear calls without that annoying mask muffle. If synched with a mobile app, you can connect with Alexa or Google assistant through your mask. Can’t you already if you just talk loud enough? Hmmm. Anyway, it costs $50 and comes with three filters. It will be available at retailers like Target and Amazon starting in February.

Bio Button
BioButton provides continuous vital sign monitoring.

BioButton by BioIntelliSense

This silver-dollar sized sensing device adheres to the upper chest and continuously tracks temperature, respiration, heart rate, activity level and sleep. BioIntelliSense says that after a few days of data collection, the BioButton can help identify a possible coronavirus infection before you notice you’re sick. The rub is that it can’t distinguish between coronavirus and the flu, so you would still need to be tested. It has been cleared to collect vital signs at home by the FDA and is already being used by healthcare providers. Continuous vital sign monitoring could be more useful for screening than spot temperature checks, which only reflect a snapshot in time, but comes with the expected privacy concerns.

LG UVC Robot 03
LG autonomous robot cleans surfaces with UV-C light.

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