WASHINGTON (SBG) — With demand for rapid COVID-19 tests rising and supplies dwindling, the Biden administration is dedicating new resources to making at-home tests more readily available and less costly as officials aim to avoid another resurgence of infections later in the year.
The White House announced a $1 billion investment Wednesday in rapid at-home COVID-19 tests intended to quadruple the supply of test kits by the end of 2021. Last month, the administration directed $2 billion toward providing tests to sites like community health centers, food banks, and schools.
“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,” said White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zeints.
A new at-home test developed by ACON Laboratories was approved by the Food and Drug Administration Monday, and other manufacturers have committed to stepping up production. Officials estimate 200 million at-home tests will be available per month starting in December.
The increased at-home testing supply will be in addition to 30,000 free testing locations at pharmacies and community sites around the country, allowing for a total of up to a half-billion tests to be completed per month.
The current federal COVID-19 testing strategy calls for widespread testing of symptomatic individuals, as well as regular screening for settings like schools and nursing homes. Amid the surge of the delta variant, the start of a new school year, and an uptick in employers requiring negative tests for unvaccinated employees, shortages have been widely reported.
“We recognize there’s a need,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. “We recognized we needed to do more.”
Some experts say the need for more testing has been apparent for well over a year, and the federal government under both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump has offered too little support. Rapid tests are widely available in other countries and have helped slow the spread of COVID-19 in Europe, but the FDA has been more cautious in approving at-home antigen tests than foreign regulators.
Although President Biden campaigned on a commitment to increased testing, his efforts since taking office have been focused more on vaccine distribution. The White House maintained that opportunities to ramp up testing were limited by a lack of approved products that could facilitate reliable rapid screening until recently.
“As the innovation allowed for at-home testing to be approved earlier this year, more and more tests have come to market, including the product that just came to market this week We’ve made significant progress throughout the president’s administration,” Zeints said.
Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield acknowledged in a radio interview Wednesday that the federal government was too slow to build up testing capacity from the start of the pandemic. He said he was “disappointed” the Department of Health and Human Services did not do more to spur development of tests in early 2020.
“We needed the diagnostic companies on a Manhattan Project in January pouring out -- literally, we should have been testing, you know, 5 million, 10 million tests a day," Redfield said, according to CNN.
According to Virginia Tech public health expert Dr. Laura Hungerford, improved access to rapid tests could be valuable for limiting transmission, but only if people are willing to use them. Recent resistance to mitigation strategies from the unvaccinated suggests those who need to be tested most will be least likely to do so.
“SARS-CoV-2 is very infectious, and the pandemic will continue as long as there are people who don’t use testing, vaccines, masks, distancing, or isolation,” Hungerford said.
Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who has advocated for rapid testing as an essential element of living with COVID-19, said the White House announcement was “a good step in the right direction,” but still not sufficient. He also raised concerns about pricing, given that similar tests are much cheaper or free for consumers in other countries.
“We need to see these tests as the critical public health tools they are and authorize many more of them for their public health benefits,” Mina said on Twitter.
Federal officials downplayed complaints about costs Wednesday, pointing to free community testing options as an alternative. The newly approved ACON test is expected to retail for under $10, and the administration believes the increased supply will help drive down prices for other brands of at-home test kits.
“As we get more and more tests approved and manufacturing ramps up, pricing should come down as economies of scale are achieved and competition kicks in,” Zeints said.
New COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are beginning to decline nationwide from the height of the delta surge. Convenient and affordable testing could help keep numbers down in the months ahead and minimize the sort of winter spike seen last year as cold weather forces more people indoors.
However, experts stress rapid tests are still not a substitute for vaccination, and immunizing more of the population is necessary to reduce the risk of new surges or the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants.
“We are so lucky in the U.S. to have access to such safe and effective vaccines for COVID,” Hungerford said. “But each person who gets COVID gives the virus another chance to mutate and become worse, and to spread to children who can’t yet be vaccinated.”