Biden administration to buy more rapid tests, but experts say more are needed

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said on Wednesday that it will spend $1 billion on coronavirus diagnostic tests that can be administered at home and return results within 15 minutes.

That purchase would quadruple the nation’s supply of such tests by December, White House pandemic response team coordinator Jeff Zients said during a Wednesday afternoon coronavirus-related press briefing, so that 200 million rapid tests will be available per month by then.

Zients said that the federal government will distribute the rapid tests it buys to community health centers, food pantries and other institutions.

White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients attends a meeting with President Joe Biden, business leaders and CEOs on the COVID-19 response in the library of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)
White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients at a meeting with President Biden, business leaders and CEOs at the White House on Sept. 15. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The United States has been slow to embrace rapid testing, unlike nations like Germany, where such tests have been readily available, inexpensive and widely used. Such tests can be administered at home or at institutions like schools or concert venues, allowing for a fast and accurate means of catching infections. But unless rapid tests are easy to access for both individuals and institutions, they are unlikely to do much good.

“If we are smart,” George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok told the New York Times earlier this week, “we will replace masks with tests in the schools, workplaces and Thanksgiving celebrations.”

The rollout of rapid coronavirus testing has been plagued by delays in regulatory approval and, more recently, a manufacturing pace that has been slow to meet rising demand, which has led to high prices and lack of availability.

Zients portrayed Wednesday’s announcement as a jump start of the effort. “As we get more and more tests approved, and manufacturing ramps up, pricing should come down,” he said. Scarcity should also no longer be an issue if manufacturers respond as the Biden administration hopes they will.

The news comes just weeks after the administration announced a $2 billion purchase of 280 million rapid tests. Wednesday’s additional buy reflects the recognition that even as the recent surge fueled by the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus subsides, the arrival of cold weather could lead to new infection spikes across the country.

“We recognize there’s a need,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a separate briefing later on Wednesday. “We recognized there’s a need to do more.”

A medical worker performs a nasal swab on a woman at a rapid COVID-19 test site. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A medical worker performs a nasal swab on a woman at a rapid COVID-19 test site. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Some have questioned why it has taken the Biden administration so long to make rapid testing a priority, given that the Food and Drug Administration first granted approval to a rapid test manufacturer in October 2020. More approvals came in the following months, but by the spring of 2021, the pandemic seemed to be on the wane, and pharmaceutical companies saw little reason to invest in diagnostic equipment.

Throughout the summer, Abbott Laboratories reportedly destroyed millions of rapid tests it figured were never going to be used. (Abbott pushed back against this report, saying the tests had expired.) The Delta variant has rendered that calculation incorrect, while the need to keep schools and businesses open has only added to the urgency.

“The efforts of the WH are a good step in the right direction,” said Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina, who emerged early in the pandemic as one of the nation’s most vociferous advocates of rapid testing, on Twitter. “But we will need more tests,” he added.

Last year Mina and other researchers concluded in a computational analysis that a nationwide rapid testing program could halt the spread of the coronavirus.

“We need to see these tests as the critical public health tools they are,” Mina said on Wednesday. He has estimated that 20 million rapid tests would have to be administered for that impact to become evident. Even with the new investment in rapid tests, the Biden administration will fall far short of that figure.

Update: This story has been updated to include a response from Abbot Laboratories.


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