Brigette Bard doesn’t come from a medical tech background but she says this has come in handy during her time as CEO of BioSure, an at-home diagnostics testing company, because if she had known how difficult it would be, she wouldn’t have done it.
“There have been so many barriers to bringing this to market that if I had thought about them all before, maybe I wouldn’t have done it,” she laughs when we speak on the phone.
Instead, her experience working at a brokerage firm focused on the fast-moving consumer goods service, means the skills she has when it comes to marketing and brand development helped when setting up the company in 2011.
BioSure launched with the view to providing at-home sexual health testing. Bard’s vision was to offer tests for a range of STIs to make it as easy for people to use as a pregnancy test. “I’d used pregnancy tests in the past and I’ve never had to take time off work or book a doctor’s appointment or wait five days for my results. For me, self-testing was a no-brainer.”
In 2014, BioSure became part of the lobbying group canvassing the UK government to allow HIV self-testing. The practice had been banned since the 1990s, as the technology wasn’t sufficient and a diagnosis was still considered a death sentence. But due to the improvements in diagnostics tech, as well as the global strides made in HIV/AIDs medication, Bard felt people should be allowed to test themselves at home, in their own space.
A year later, BioSure had successfully created the world’s first HIV self-test. You can buy one in Boots or online via BioSure’s website. It’s a blood-based test – you simply prick your finger and then poke it into the pre-filled solution and it runs like a pregnancy test. One thing that BioSure’s test has is an in-built sample control line – only human blood will trigger the test, unlike other self-tests which can be triggered by any fluids.
“If you do something wrong, no lines will appear. For an untrained end user, knowing whether they’ve done the test correctly or not is critical,” says Bard.
If you do receive a positive diagnosis, BioSure works with the social enterprise PeblFeedback, an anonymous website where people can talk about their experiences. There’s also a WhatsApp number on the test’s box as another avenue to provide advice. BioSure also suggests visiting a sexual health clinic too for confirmation as well as advice on the next steps to take.
Why should people be able to self-test for HIV? For one, it’s not easy to get an appointment at a sexual health clinic in order to be tested. They’re usually open in the daytime when people are at work or there might be geographical constraints. “Even if you mean to test, sometimes people don’t get there because transmission is related to sex and people feel embarrassed. There’s a lot of self-stigmatisation that goes on,” says Bard.
Upending the stigma around the HIV diagnosis is a major aspect of BioSure’s mission. “People are really worried about finding out their status. But even on the day someone tests positive, they had it the day before. The day before you were ignored and scared because once you find out and get on to treatment, the treatments are so good now. Your life expectancy is normal, you can have HIV-free children, you can’t pass it on.”
Bard credits Gareth Thomas with helping to breakdown the stigma around HIV diagnoses. Following the former rugby player’s announcement of his status a few months ago, the Terrence Higgins Trust received a surge in calls and self-test orders. Thomas recently became head of the first-ever HIV Commission which aims to eradicate new transmissions within 10 years.
“I feel so bad because of the reasons he had to disclose,” says Bard (a tabloid reporter outed him to his parents). “But he’s done such an amazing job of normalising the conversation. And the fact he did the Iron Man really quickly afterwards – it shows people live normal lives.”
Whilst reductions in diagnoses have slowed – a six per cent decline in 2018 compared to a 17 per cent decline the year before thanks to the increased availability of the prevention pill PrEP – there are concerns over different groups in society having a lack of education around it and therefore being at risk of contracting HIV. Post-menopausal women are the one of the fastest-growing groups of diagnoses. In the UK in 2015, 26 per cent of new diagnoses in the over 50s were in women, whilst in 2017, it took for every 303 heterosexual women aged 45-64 tested for HIV, one would have the virus, compared to 4,136 tests in heterosexual women aged 15-24.
“They’re coming out of long-term relationships and can’t get pregnant so don’t need barrier contraception, and may think [HIV] is a gay man thing from the 80s. It’s amazing how the educational side of things has been a huge part of what we’re doing.”
BioSure’s test is now available across four continents – it recently launched in Hong Kong with an NGO called Aids Concern. The company won the Pitch@Palace competition, the start-up showcase created by the Duke of York, in 2018. Bard says this helped BioSure to grow across the Commonwealth thanks to the investors and key ecosystem players that attended, however following the Duke’s fall from grace, there are concerns over what will happen to the competition.
“They have been fantastic for us,” she explains. “What they do is so worthwhile in building this network of entrepreneurs and supporters. It’ll be such a shame if it doesn’t move forward because it is really positive and from a UK business perspective it takes you on to a global platform.” The Duke has stepped down from leading the competition, however, for now it will continue as “Pitch”, with no royal involvement in the future.
Bard’s next aim is to ensure BioSure’s new sexual health tests go through the right regulatory approval, as well as changing the narrative so people see self-testing as a HIV prevention tool.
“Self-testing is becoming part of a lot of people’s wellbeing – like you’d go to the dentist or for a health check-up. People can do it on a three-six month basis so they know what their status is,” she says.
So is this the future of diagnostic testing? “I think so. When you offer people responsibility, they really do accept it. It’s always a choice because there are always going to be alternatives. But being able to test on your own terms is a huge thing.”
BioSure is holding a Know Your Status Live event for World Aids Day at Freedom Bar, Wardour Street. There will be talks and discussions from leading experts, as well as a Dolly Parton tribute.
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