WASHINGTON — The White House announced Wednesday that it will buy $1 billion worth of rapid, at-home coronavirus tests to address ongoing shortages, a plan hailed by public health experts who called the move long overdue.
The actions will quadruple the number of tests available to Americans by December, according to Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. The news follows Monday’s decision by the Food and Drug Administration to allow the sale of an antigen test from U.S.-based Acon Laboratories.
The White House expects that decision and the purchase of the additional tests will increase the number of at-home tests to 200 million per month by December.
“This is a big deal” said Scott Becker, chief executive of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, who said the spotty availability of rapid tests had hampered efforts to track and combat the surge of coronavirus cases driven by the highly transmissible delta variant. “The White House is beginning to take testing as seriously as they’ve taken vaccinations.”
The administration is also aiming to increase free testing by doubling President Joe Biden’s earlier commitment to expand the number of pharmacies in the federal government’s free testing program to 20,000, Zients said at a news briefing Wednesday. Biden last month announced a coronavirus response plan that envisioned a significant expansion of testing capacity.
The United States has lagged several European and Asian countries in testing for much of the pandemic, with many Americans reporting in recent months that they have struggled to get testing appointments or to be able to purchase at-home tests. While the FDA has authorized several at-home tests, public health experts criticized the agency for not moving faster to greenlight more of them to expedite the tests’ availability.
“These tests are cheap to make — and there’s a lot of demand for it out there,” said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “The reason the market hasn’t worked is because the FDA has made it very difficult for these tests to get out into the marketplace.”
Jeff Shuren, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, disputed that characterization. He said the main difference between the U.S. and countries with cheaper, more available tests is that those governments heavily invested in the tests. Having large purchasing agreements, including the one announced Wednesday by the White House, drives production up and prices down, and countries doing that earlier.
In the White House briefing, Zients said the testing companies Quidel and OraSure are also rapidly expanding the production of their at-home tests to get more on the market. When pressed on why the White House did not increase the availability of such tests sooner, Zients said the tests only became available only earlier this year.
By the end of the year, he said, the U.S. should have about half a billion tests available per month between at-home tests and PCR tests that people can take at a local pharmacy, clinic or doctors office. “Together, the steps we’re taking will ensure that every American, no matter their income level or Zip code, can access accurate, convenient and affordable testing,” he said.
Experts had clamored for the government to invest in widespread availability of rapid tests, saying that improved detection of coronavirus outbreaks could have tamped down the virus’ spread, particularly in the early months of the pandemic.
“This slow trickle of (emergency authorizations) is all but promising to get us a large supply of rapid tests just in time for them to no longer be as effective against delta,” added Michael Mina, a Harvard University epidemiologist who has advocated for at-home testing. “There are amazing tests produced in the billions that simply don’t exist here in the U.S.”
One potential complication of the expansion of at-home testing is the impact on official counts of coronavirus infections. Some of the at-home tests have an app that helps people report positive cases so they get added to the official government tally. But the administration will also rely on people to self-report when an at-home test shows they are infected, said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.
Some experts said it will be important for the government to educate people about when the tests should be used, how to use them and what to do with the results.
“It’s a relief to have access to rapid testing but it will be critical to understand how to broadly disseminate and give guidance about when best to use these tests,” said Kavita Patel, a primary care physician and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in the Obama administration. “The last thing we want is for tests to go unused and sit on shelves but you also need to give guidance to understand when these tests should be used.”