The Corner

Politics & Policy

The CDC Testing Disaster

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta, Ga. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)

The CDC — once the “Communicable Disease Center” before being renamed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — was created to prevent malaria and other dangerous communicable diseases from spreading across the nation. It was not created, you might be surprised to learn, to pester Americans about their salt intake or vaping habits.

The CDC has spent more than a decade spearheading nannyistic efforts to control sodium use, to ban trans fats, and to mislead the public on the dangers of e-cigarettes. Now, it would be one thing if the CDC effectively managed its most vital charge: mitigating the spread of dangerous diseases. But that rarely seems to be the case. Often, it can’t even abide by primum non nocere.

The New York Times reports today that the CDC failed to follow its own protocols when creating coronavirus tests, sending kits out across the country that had been rendered ineffective because they were tainted with the COVID-19 due to sloppiness:

Problems ranged from researchers entering and exiting the coronavirus laboratories without changing their coats, to test ingredients being assembled in the same room where researchers were working on positive coronavirus samples, officials said. Those practices made the tests sent to public health labs unusable because they were contaminated with the coronavirus, and produced some inconclusive results.

Testing is, of course, vital to understanding the virus, preventing hotspots from forming, and isolating and tracking the infected. Not only did the CDC fail, it hindered others from succeeding.

As the CDC was sending out its tainted tests around the nation, the FDA was barring the use of imported tests over quality-control issues. And though the CDC informed state and local officials in mid February that its “testing capacity is more than adequate to meet current testing demands,” demand quickly outpaced production.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, even after the CDC-produced tests had been depleted, lab operators and hospitals were deterred from creating their own, undermined first by onerous bureaucratic impediments and then by the government agencies’ lack of coordination and reluctance to allow private companies to test themselves or even provide nasal swabs and chemical reagents. All of this set the United States back weeks.

The CDC had control of making the test and rationing the tests. This kind of centralized and rigid regulatory regime that eschews the innovation and flexibility of the private sector keeps failing the American people. And they don’t fail because of a lack of funding (the CDC’s budget expanded greatly after 9/11) and they don’t fail because partisan bickering (the scientists at the agency aren’t political appointees). While the nation reacted swiftly on both a personal and local state level, and private companies quickly began retrofitting and reimagining their purpose, our massive institutions failed.

It’s unsurprising. Non-government entities are going to be faster and nimbler, weeding out bad ideas, improving on good ones, and quickly traversing impediments. Of course the nation needs agencies to coordinate emergency responses. But giant top-down bureaucracies infected with mission creep and layers of administrative inflexibility are incapable of succeeding. Maybe we’ll learn the lesson this time.


The Latest