The Corner

Health Care

We Need an ‘Operation Warp Speed’ for At-Home COVID Tests

A woman receives a COVID-19 test from a technician at a mobile testing van in New York, August 27, 2021. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

President Biden’s unwise and probably unconstitutional vaccine mandate had a much-less-discussed second aspect. As an alternative to being vaccinated, companies could test employees at least once a week.

That presents a logistical problem though, since our testing apparatus is woefully inadequate. New York Times columnist and newsletter writer, David Leonhardt, succinctly laid out the problem today:

In Britain, France and Germany, rapid testing is widely available and inexpensive, thanks to government subsidies. People can visit testing sites, like tents outside pharmacies in France or abandoned nightclubs in Germany, and get tested at no charge. Many people also keep tests in their homes and self-administer them. “It’s been a way to put people’s minds at ease,” Melissa Eddy, a Times correspondent in Berlin, told my colleague Claire Moses.

In the U.S., by contrast, people usually take a different kind of test — known as a P.C.R. test — which must be processed by a laboratory and sometimes does not return results for more than 24 hours. During that time, a person with Covid can spread it to others.

The shortage of testing in the U.S. may be contributing to the virus’s spread.

What a remarkable failure of our public-health sector and political leadership.

The problem remains the sclerotic FDA:

In the case of rapid tests, the F.D.A. has loosened its rules somewhat over the past year, allowing the sale of some antigen tests (which often cost about $12 each). But drugstores, Amazon and other sellers have now largely run out of them. I tried to buy rapid tests this weekend and couldn’t find any.

The F.D.A.’s process for approving rapid tests is “onerous” and “inappropriate,” Daniel Oran and Dr. Eric Topol of Scripps Research wrote in Stat News.

For the most part, the F.D.A. still uses the same cumbersome process for approving Covid tests that it uses for high-tech medical devices. To survive that process, the rapid tests must demonstrate that they are nearly as sensitive as P.C.R. tests, which they are not.

Biden has a ready remedy!

Several experts have called on Biden to issue an executive order reclassifying rapid tests as a public health tool rather than a medical device. If that happened, the companies selling many tests in Europe, like Abbott and Roche, would quickly flood the U.S. market, experts say. The tests would not be free but would likely be substantially cheaper than they are now.

The technology is already invented, so what’s the holdup?

Biden’s recent emergency-vaccine order has badly exacerbated our COVID divisions. Red states are getting ready to sue. So are teacher’s unions. Health-care workers are quitting their jobs at hospitals rather than be coerced into accepting the jab. These trends will only accelerate once the new rules are published by the Department of Labor.

If we had ready access to easy testing, the heat over vaccines could decrease because infected people could withdraw during the time they are contagious. People with comorbidities could be sure that everyone who came to their home tested negative for greater safety. New infections would be prevented.

So, how about an Operation Warp Speed to manufacture and widely distribute COVID tests? That’s less clickbaity and base-engaging than the fight over vaccines, but think of the good that would do for the country.

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