When historians of the future look back at the 2020 pandemic, the heroic work of Helen Y. Chu, a flu researcher at the University of Washington, will be worthy of recognition.
In late January, Chu was testing nasal swabs for the Seattle Flu Study to monitor influenza spread when she learned of the first case of COVID-19 in Washington state. She deemed it a pressing public health matter to document if and how the illness was spreading locally, so that early containment efforts could succeed. So she sought regulatory approval to adapt the Flu Study to test for the coronavirus, but the federal government denied the request because the original project was funded to study only influenza.
Aware of the urgency, Chu’s team bravely defied the order and conducted the testing anyway. Soon they identified a local case in a teenager without any travel history, followed by others. Still, the government tried to shutter their efforts until the outbreak grew dangerous enough to command attention.
Needless testing delays, prompted by excessive regulatory interference, eliminated any chances of curbing the pandemic at its initial stages. Even after Chu went out on a limb to sound alarms, a heavy-handed bureaucracy crushed the nation’s ability to roll out early and widespread testing across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention infamously blundered its own test, while also impeding state and private labs from coming on board, fueling a massive shortage.
The long holdup created “a backlog of testing that needed to be done,” says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist who is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.
In a public health crisis, “the ideal situation” would allow the government’s test to be “supplanted by private laboratories” without such “a lag in that transition,” Adalja says. Only after the eventual release of CDC’s test could private industry “begin in earnest” to develop its own versions under the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization.
In a statement, CDC acknowledged that “this process has not gone as smoothly as we would have liked, but there is currently no backlog for testing at CDC.”
Now, universities and corporations are in a race against time, playing catch up as the virus continues its relentless spread, also afflicting many health care workers on the front lines.
Hospitals are attempting to add the novel coronavirus to the testing panel of their existent diagnostic machines, which would reduce the results processing time from 48 hours to as little as four hours. Meanwhile, at least four companies announced plans to deliver at-home collection tests to help meet the demand – before a startling injunction by the FDA halted their plans.
Everlywell, an Austin, Texas-based digital health company, had been set to launch online sales of at-home collection kits directly to consumers last week. Scaling up in a matter of days to an initial supply of 30,000 tests, Everlywell collaborated with multiple laboratories where consumers could ship their nasal swab samples overnight, projecting capacity to screen a quarter-million individuals on a weekly basis, says Frank Ong, chief medical and scientific officer.
Secure digital results would have been available online within 48 hours of a sample’s arrival at the lab, as well as a telehealth consultation with an independent, board-certified doctor if someone tested positive, for an inclusive $135 cost. The test has a less than 3 percent false-negative rate, Ong says, and in the event of an inadequate self-swab, the lab would not report a conclusive finding. “Home-testing accessibility,” he says, “is key to preventing further spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
But on March 20, the FDA announced restrictions on home collection tests due to concerns about accuracy. The agency did note “the public health value in expanding the availability of COVID-19 testing through safe and accurate tests that may include home collection,” while adding that “we are actively working with test developers in this space.”
After the restrictions were announced, Everlywell decided to allocate its initial supply of COVID-19 collection kits to hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and other qualifying health care companies that can commit to no-cost screening of frontline workers and high-risk symptomatic patients. For now, no consumers can order a home-collection test.
Currently, the U.S. has ramped up to testing an estimated 100,000 people a day, according to Stat News. But 150,000 or more Americans should be tested every day, says Ashish Jha, professor and director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. Due to the dearth of tests, many sick people who suspect they are infected still cannot get confirmation unless they need to be hospitalized.
To give a concrete sense of how far behind we are in testing, consider Palm Beach County, Fla. The state’s only drive-thru test center just opened there, requiring an appointment. The center aims to test 750 people per day, but more than 330,000 people have already called to try to book a slot.
“This is such a rapidly moving infection that losing a few days is bad, and losing a couple of weeks is terrible,” says Jha, a practicing general internist. “Losing two months is close to disastrous, and that’s what we did.”
At this point, it will take a long time to fully ramp up. “We are blindfolded,” he adds, “and I’d like to take the blindfolds off so we can fight this battle with our eyes wide open.”
Better late than never: Yesterday, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement that the agency has worked with more than 230 test developers and has approved 20 tests since January. An especially notable one was authorized last Friday – 67 days since the country’s first known case in Washington state. It’s a rapid point-of-care test from medical-device firm Abbott that provides positive results in five minutes and negative results in 13 minutes. Abbott will send 50,000 tests a day to urgent care settings. The first tests are expected to ship tomorrow.