After Problems And Delays, White House Touts New COVID-19 Test

Medical University of South Carolina healthcare providers dress in protective suiting as they get ready to see patients by the hospital's drive-through tent for COVID-19 Testing on March, 13, 2020.l

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Medical University of South Carolina healthcare providers dress in protective suiting as they get ready to see patients by the hospital's drive-through tent for COVID-19 Testing on March, 13, 2020.l

The White House says “hundreds of thousands” of tests will soon be available to track the spread of the virus across the United States.

A new COVID-19 test will soon be available to the public, along with a website to easily direct people to drive-thru testing centers, White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Leah Birx said Friday.

The Rose Garden announcement came two days after Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told Congress that the nation’s testing efforts were “failing.” Two months after the first community-spread case was discovered in the United States, fewer than 15,000 Americans are known to have been tested for the coronavirus — far fewer per capita than in China, South Korea, Italy, Japan, or the UK.

The new test was developed by Roche Holdings, which on Monday night received emergency approval to produce the test from the Food and Drug Administration, Birx said. Then on Tuesday, representatives from testing and diagnostic companies, the White House and other players met in secret to discuss expanding the test’s availability. 

Birx described the authorization as “moving from request, to development to approval in record time” and as a significant change from the way testing kits have been approved for other illnesses like seasonal influenza. “In less than two weeks together, we have developed a solution we believe will meet the future testing needs of Americans,” she said.

She said the test was “an automated, high-throughput system.” The tests will be processed by diagnostic companies LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics, which will produce results in 24 to 48 hours, she said. “Hundreds of thousands” of tests would begin rolling out soon, she said.

Brix and President Trump both said that people who are experiencing symptoms will be able to go to an online portal created by Google, enter their symptoms and, if appropriate, be directed to a drive-thru testing facility of the sort that have already sprung up in places like Colorado. 

But that may not actually happen. Just after the press conference, Google released a statement on its corporate Twitter account saying that what is actually happening is that Verily, one of Google’s sister companies, is building a pilot website for the San Francisco region. “We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing. Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time,” it reads. 

On Saturday, Google issued an additional statement that the company is ”partnering with the US Government in developing a nationwide website that includes information about COVID-19 symptoms, risk and testing information.” The company also said it would promote “authoritative information through Google Search and YouTube.”

The Rose Garden press conference came on the heels of costly delays in getting enough tests out to detect and track the spread of the illness during the initial stages of the outbreak. As Sheri Fink and Mike Baker have documented for the New York Times, early efforts were hampered by “flawed test kits and burdensome rules” that put testing well behind where it should have been at the beginning stages of a pandemic. 

That flawed testing was the result of missteps at the CDC. In January and February, the agency used its own testing guidelines to develop a test, rather than those developed by the World Health Organization specifically for COVID-19. The CDC wound up designing its own test that didn’t work, as it was developed to not just detect COVID-19 but other, similar pathogens. 

As ProPublica wrote in February, “When it was sent to labs across the country in the first week of February, it didn’t work as expected. The CDC test correctly identified COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. But in all but a handful of state labs, it falsely flagged the presence of the other viruses in harmless samples.” The result, as ProPublica writes, there was a lack of adequate testing capacity in many critical places, including in New York.

Shortly after that, on Feb. 29, the FDA announced an “accelerated policy” to get a working test.

This story was updated with additional commentary from Google.

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