The White House on Wednesday is set to expand access to rapid coronavirus tests, a plan hailed by public health experts who called the move long overdue.
The administration said the plan to buy $1 billion worth of rapid, at-home coronavirus tests and other actions should address ongoing shortages and quadruple the number of tests available to Americans by December, according to a White House official and senior administration official with knowledge of the pending announcement. 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 the FDA decision and the purchase of the additional tests to increase the number of at-home tests to 200 million per month by December.
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, the White House official said. Biden last month announced a coronavirus response plan that envisioned a significant expansion of testing capacity.
The announcement was first reported by the New York Times and Politico.
“This is a big deal” said Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, who said the spotty availability of rapid tests had hampered efforts to track and combat the recent surge of coronavirus cases, driven by the hyper-transmissable delta variant. “The White House is beginning to take testing as seriously as they’ve taken vaccinations.”
The U.S. has lagged behind 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 purchase at-home tests. Public health experts faulted the FDA for not moving faster 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.”
“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.”
FDA officials have said they are concerned that the rapid antigen tests, which deliver a result within minutes, are less accurate than the slower PCR tests that need to be evaluated in a laboratory and can take days to produce results. Australian company Ellume this month recalled roughly 195,000 of its at-home coronavirus antigen tests after discovering an increased chance that the affected kits would return false positive results.
Some experts said it would be critical for the government to make clear when the tests should be used and ensure they don’t go to waste.
“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.”
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.
“We wasted much of last year when it would’ve really made a huge difference, before we had vaccines,” said Jha.
Becker cautioned that the rise of at-home testing could hamper public tracking of coronavirus cases, since at-home test results often do not get reported to public health officials. “It’s really on the honor system,” he said.