As the White House scrambles to assure the public that the coronavirus is under control, and that the CDC is working with local officials and labs to ramp up testing, it appears that the White House hasn't been entirely forthcoming about a critical component of its 'containment' strategy: The virus tests.
Last night, during a press conference hosted by Vice President Mike Pence and HHS Secretary Alex Azar, FDA head Dr. Stephen Hahn boasted that labs across the US would have enough materials on hand to carry out "close to 1 million" tests by the end of this. According to Politico, that claim far exceeds the number of tests that several labs told POLITICO they will actually be able to run each day. Under ideal conditions, the nation's public health labs could run up to 10,000 tests per day by the end of the week, according to figures provided by the Associated of Public Health Laboratories.
"With this new policy, we have heard from multiple companies and multiple academic centers, and we expect to have a substantial increase in the number of tests this week, next week, and throughout the month," Dr. Hahn said in a press briefing Monday. "There will be - the estimates we’re getting from industry right now, by the end of this week, close to a million tests will be able to be performed."
It seems like lab officials have been talking to reporters behind the administration's back, and what they're saying isn't exactly flattering: while there's no question that testing is being ramped up, the administration's lofty expectations and projections far exceed capacity.
Over the weekend, the FDA announced a plan to expand testing at local labs across the country following widespread complaints from labs, local public health officials and the mayor of NYC about restrictive conditions for testing suspected patients for coronavirus. As the administration has shifted from a strategy of prevention to containment, guaranteeing that labs are prepared to test any suspect patients, even if connections to other patients are always clear, is critical.
During another interview on CNBC Tuesday morning, former FDA Director Scott Gottlieb assured the public that the administration is "catching up" when it comes to making tests available, and that it will soon make up for its slow shift to a more containment-centric strategy.
However, according to the New York Times, this 'shift' is taking longer than the administration is willing to admit, and that instead of procuring 1 million tests by the end of the week, the administration and state and local labs might only be able to get its hands on...2,500, plus another 75,000...meaning they would be 922,500 tests short of their goal.
The NYT's sources said that during a call between President Trump, VP Pence, the CDC and other parties participating in the outbreak response, Trump seemed unwilling to acknowledge the risks of the outbreak, instead insisting that it would fade once the warm weather arrives.
In the briefing, which was conducted by phone, the officials said that only 337 additional C.D.C. test kits were made available for distribution on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to two people on the call and the person briefed on the discussion who were not authorized to discuss it publicly. Each of those tests would cover about 350 people, officials said.
The officials added that they hoped that a private manufacturer could step in and provide 2,500 more kits by the end of the week. A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said that public health labs currently can test 15,000 people, and could test up to 75,000 by the end of the week, numbers that fall well short of what Dr. Hahn indicated private labs could handle.
Without the tests, it will take longer for public health officials to figure out how widespread the virus truly is, giving the market a false impression that containment efforts have been a success. The only problem is that containing a virus isn't like negotiating a trade deal. While a certain amount of bluster is acceptable, at a certain point, you actually need to fix the problem.
And just yesterday, we reported, Dr. Fauci appeared on cable news and warned that the outbreak has likely reached "pandemic proportions" regardless of the WHO's reluctance to label it accordingly.
So, how long will it take the administration to boost testing to 'full capacity'? Well, it's unclear. But right now, it's not looking good.
The Association of Public Health Laboratories, which represents state and local government laboratories around the country, has said that its labs would be able to conduct about 10,000 tests a day when all of its 100 members that can perform testing are running. Scott Becker, the executive director of the lab association, said Monday that labs can run about 100 tests per day. As of Monday, he said fewer than half of those labs were able to do so.
Seemingly overnight, the CDC has confirmed more than 100 cases from around the US that have nothing to do with the evacuees from Wuhan and the 'Diamond Princess'.
If cases continue to grow at this pace, the US only has a few days to get the outbreak under control or risk facing a Wuhan-style outbreak.