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The COVID-19 response plan President Biden unveiled last week aims to dramatically increase the accessibility of rapid tests for the coronavirus.
The Biden administration announced it was spending $ 2 billion on 280 million rapid tests to distribute to community health centers, food banks, testing sites, shelters, prisons and other gathering places . It also relies on Walmart, Amazon and Kroger to sell rapid tests at wholesale prices for the next three months.
These rapid tests can be done at home or at a point of care and provide results often in less than an hour, unlike more sensitive but longer PCR tests, which require laboratory processing.
Dr Michael Mina, professor of epidemiology at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, has been a strong supporter of the wide availability of rapid tests, even with the advent of effective vaccines.
“If there is a problem with vaccines, we need back-up plans,” he told Mary Louise Kelly of NPR in April, before the highly contagious delta variant drove the current wave of infections. “If new variants arise that bypass the immune system of people, especially in the elderly whose immune system, a year after their vaccination, could decline in terms of the level of protection, we want to be able to limit the spread. as much as possible. “
In a new conversation with Kelly on All things Considered, Mina warned that even with increased production, testing availability will soon become an issue after Biden announced companies with 100 or more employees must either require their employees to be vaccinated or test them weekly.
There are already reports that these rapid home antigen tests are hard to find on store shelves and online.
“We’re about to see what I think is another testing crisis in this country,” Mina said. “While I overwhelmingly support the President’s action plan to increase the accessibility and availability of these rapid tests … unfortunately we don’t have the scale of either. [rapid or PCR] tests to be able to get a quick turnaround time. “
Interview highlights contain extensive web sections only.
On how rapid antigenic tests work compared to PCR tests
For public health, [rapid tests] work very well. And what I mean by that is if the question is “Am I contagious right now?” Then these tests are very precise. They have a very high sensitivity to detect people who are currently infectious. The PCR test is the gold standard, but as a medical diagnosis. If, as a doctor, a patient says, “I want to know, ‘Was I contagious last week? “” PCR testing can help with that. But the delays and lack of easy access make it [PCR tests] a test much more ill-equipped to be able to really curb the spread during this pandemic.
Why companies, schools and other institutions do not accept rapid tests
In the United States, we had this unfortunate misperception that really started with the federal government in 2020 … that these tests weren’t accurate. … Much of our research at Harvard last year was devoted to just showing that we need to maintain public health tools to a different set of standards. No worse, but different.
And that it is actually the speed of a test and not just molecular sensitivity that becomes much more crucial. … These tests are the absolute best test for public health. And now, finally, we see the CDC recognizing it. We actually see, of course, the Biden administration acknowledging this.
On if he was counting on a rapid test for his child
The short answer is yes, I would trust it. But if there are epidemics in my community and my child is showing symptoms of COVID, then in this climate, I would not send my child to school if they were showing symptoms, and this should be the first. stage. …
And the reason is that there is no other choice. You can tell I want a PCR test, but you won’t get that result for three or four days. By the time you decide to make an appointment, get the swab, send it to a lab, get the results two days later. So there is no better option in the immediate future. And so as a parent, I would say, yes, absolutely. This is the best test I have at my disposal right now.
And even if someone is symptomatic, if they don’t turn positive on a rapid test, they’re very, very unlikely to spread the virus. The symptoms are often the immune response to the virus, so they could have been infectious two days ago, but if they are negative now, they are probably not spread now.
Why rapid tests still cost so much in the United States
The United States is a major outlier that way. All over the world, if you go to Europe, you can get these tests for less than a dollar, and you can actually get them all the time. They are available ; they are readily available anywhere. You can go to the UK and you can get seven free tests, delivered to your door every day, if you want.
The reason it’s so expensive here is that we don’t have any competition in the market. … The actual cost of the devices is very cheap. But what we need is competition in the market. We need more producers to enter the US market. And in order to do that, we need to remove some of the regulatory barriers that we have encountered so far.
Whether President Biden’s new rapid testing initiative will get the US enough test kits
So the Biden plan for now – and I want to be very clear about that – isn’t going to get the US the number of tests we actually need so people can be sure when they step into their CVS, they’ll see a box of quick tests available. But what the Biden plan does is it will spur an increase and a wave of business activity to try and sell their tests in the US market. Because now for the first time we have very broad and high level support for these tools. So that will spur US innovation and foreign innovation – and these companies actually exist. We could have tens of millions of tests available on the shelves every day instead of 1 million if we allowed more companies to enter the market. And I think the Biden plan is going to stimulate that a lot.
On how the federal government could make rapid tests cheaper and even more widely available
The president can declare that public health testing during a public health emergency uses public health tests and tools, not medical devices. And why it’s so important: If we define these tests as public health tools, then we can use a whole different set of regulatory measures to assess and authorize them very, very quickly. And that would allow us to catch up with our European peers very quickly. So it’s actually just a simple issue of how we define these tests in the United States versus Europe that really prevents them from coming into the American market.
So the president has a solution. There is a simple solution. We just need to make sure everyone is aware of the real bottleneck here.
Sam Gringlas and Sarah Handel produced and edited this conversation for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.