Long queues for Covid-19 tests as an Omicron variant threaten
With the Omicron variant spreading faster than any other variant of coronavirus before it, the Biden White House has pushed for testing to be more accessible. You’ve been making this push for months, but critics say it’s nowhere near enough.
Supply just can’t keep up with demand, but with Omicron being so much more contagious, testing is becoming more important than ever, said Mara Aspinall, professor of practice at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions.
“We are in a very, very precarious moment,” said Aspinall. “Testing is our only exit strategy from all of this.”
If people don’t test, the country is at risk of the disease spreading further.
“Testing is the core because without it there is no way to isolate people,” said Aspinall.
Most of the diseases in the US are still caused by the Delta variant.
In addition to the usual demand for tests, the current surge is coming from people with a few different needs, she said. Some have symptoms and with the flu and other viruses floating around they want to know if they have Covid-19. Others want to test before getting on a plane or spending time with family over Christmas. Both are important reasons to take a test, she said, but the test pool is simply not ready for it.
“A week ago I thought we might have enough tests, but if Omicron lands at 200,000 or 300,000 cases a day, we probably don’t have enough tests,” said Aspinall. “At every stage we thought it was close enough and now we know it is not enough.”
Last week, White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients insisted “there are many free tests across the country”.
Since then, cases have increased dramatically in some states. There are now an average of 121,707 new Covid-19 cases in the United States every day, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of new cases has remained stable over the past week, but at a level last seen in September at the end of the summer increase. And falls are increasing much faster in parts of the Northeast, Midwest, and South.
“Shall we just send one to every American?” She asked.
However, similar initiatives are already in place at local level in some cities.
While some public health experts have stated that they would like the federal government to send tests out to everyone, as it does in some European countries, Aspinall doesn’t think it is possible. The program would be expensive and could require additional funding from Congress that may not be provided. Second, not everyone who gets one would use the tests, and the tests are too important to be wasted.
When CNN’s Kaitlan Collins asked during a press conference Monday why the US government had not done rapid tests for free like other countries, Zients doubled down on his claim that the country had adequate testing.
With this in mind, the Biden administration has taken steps to make Covid-19 tests more accessible.
Why US Tests Are Delayed
The reasons why tests cannot keep up with demand vary.
Some problems stem from the testing industry. “Companies don’t always have enough staff to manage many third shifts,” said Aspinall.
The bigger problem, however, could be in the regulatory environment itself. Companies like Roche and Siemens have publicly stated that they have submitted their rapid Covid-19 tests for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Aspinall said, but the tests have not yet been approved. The same test is already used in Asia. It’s unclear what the jam with the FDA is.
“We have to find a way, human or otherwise, to get enough resources to the FDA,” said Aspinall.
Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University and co-author of a website on FDA policy and reform, told CNN, “The FDA has been too slow to approve rapid antigen tests. As a result, the prices for these tests are much higher in the US than in the rest of the world. ”
Michael Mina, a testing expert and epidemiologist who works as chief science officer at biotech software company eMed, believes the FDA is completely wrong about Covid-19 rapid tests. The agency considers these tests a medical device, and medical devices require “long, slow clinical trials that last months and months and millions of dollars”. He said the FDA should instead see them as a public health tool. Mina said he doesn’t want the FDA to accept lower quality tests, but lower sensitivity would be fine.
“When I think of public health, I need a very quick test. It doesn’t have to be as sensitive as a PCR test,” Mina said.
He said he has spoken to manufacturers who run many millions of tests every day that do not disrupt the US market because the standard is too high and many other countries are buying them.
“The FDA doesn’t seem to really budge. It’s such a terrible problem,” said Mina.
What is clear is that the country must do everything it can to improve access to testing, Aspinall said.
“Testing and isolating is the way to slow it down and stop it,” said Aspinall. “We can’t make any more victims to the virus.”