coronavirus

'Not nearly enough' coronavirus testing to safely reopen, Senate health chair says

Millions more coronavirus tests will be needed to safely reopen the country, the chairman of the Senate HELP Committee said at a hearing Thursday.

Lamar Alexander

Millions more coronavirus tests will be needed to safely reopen the country, the chairman of the Senate HELP Committee said at a hearing Thursday.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) called the more than 7 million diagnostic tests run to date “impressive, but not nearly enough” adding “there is no safe path forward to combat the novel coronavirus without adequate testing.”

His measured remarks were a contrast to the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who slammed the Trump administration for not laying out specific testing goals for each state, saying a lack of national planning is slowing the reopening of businesses and schools.

The assessments at a hearing on National Institutes of Health efforts to develop new tests came as officials aim to surpass 2 million tests a week by June. The NIH's Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics, or RADx, initiative aims to speed point-of-care tests to market by the end of the summer that could be used to regularly on returning workers, according to NIH Director Francis Collins.

More than 1,000 developers have already expressed interest in the program, and 79 have submitted full applications a little more than a week after it was launched — a response Collins said he has not seen in his 27 years at NIH.

One point-of-care test that has garnered attention from President Donald Trump is Abbott Laboratories' 15-minute rapid test. Collins cautioned the product misses some infections, which he said is “a little bit of a knock on the Abbot test.” Another limitation is that there are only about 18,000 ID NOW machines that can process rapid tests, Collins said.

“To really be able to meet the need, that would have to go up substantially,” Collins said. He said another concern was the rapid test's 15 percent false negative rate. "If you are in a circumstance where you really don’t want to miss a diagnosis from somebody already carrying the virus, you would like to have something that has a higher sensitivity than that,” he said.

Abbott spokesperson Darcy Ross told POLITICO Collins likely was referring to a Cleveland Clinic study that was conducted before the company discovered chemicals used to transport samples were interfering with test's accuracy.

"We immediately communicated with our customers that they should use the direct swab method," Ross said. "When the direct swab method is used, the test is performing as expected and we are confident in its performance."

Murray said at the hearing that innovative tests are only one piece of the puzzle, noting a supply chain under pressure must be addressed, too.

“The problem isn’t a lack of innovation, it’s a lack of national leadership and a plan from the White House,” Murray said. “You can innovate the fastest car in the world — it still won’t get you where you’re going without a good driver and good directions.”

The Harvard Global Health Institute released new data Thursday that suggest more than 900,000 coronavirus tests need to be completed daily to consider safely relax distancing measures, as a growing number of states are doing.

That number is significantly higher than the approximately 250,000 tests per day the country is currently running, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project. Premier Inc., a group purchasing organization, released a survey Thursday that found health systems will need to at least triple the current testing capacity to restore nonemergency services even partially.

Premier’s survey found two factors that are major obstacles to increasing coronavirus testing: not enough chemical reagents needed to perform tests and shortages of swabs to take patient samples.

“A core component of any reopening strategy is broad testing capacity to minimize resurgence of COVID-19,” said Premier President Michael Alkire in a press release. “However, current restrictions on capacity and shortages of swabs and reagents force health systems to limit testing, prioritizing patients and front-line workers who are symptomatic.”

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