Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
NPR Coronavirus Updates

Is The Biden Administration Doing Enough To Boost COVID-19 Testing?


The Biden administration is promising to finally solve the nation's coronavirus testing shortage. But is it doing enough? NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been looking into this and joins us now. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: So vaccines are finally here. By many measures, the pandemic seems to be slowing down, but we've been reporting on testing shortages for nearly a year. Is that still a big concern?

STEIN: Yeah. Well, you know, Sacha, the short answer is yes. In fact, in some ways, testing is more important than ever, and here's why. The virus is still spreading fast, and the big worry these days is those highly contagious variants. One or more of them could easily take off, sparking yet another deadly surge. So the country's in a race. We need to buy time to get as many people vaccinated as possible, as fast as possible to try to head that off. And one of the best ways to do that is to test as many people as possible because the faster you spot infected people, the better the chance you stop them from infecting someone else. I talked about this with Mara Aspinall from Arizona State University.

MARA ASPINALL: Testing is actually even more important now than it was eight months ago because of the high contagiousness rate of these new variants. It is critical to stop these new strains right in their tracks, and the only way to do that is to test.

PFEIFFER: So Rob, with that kind of urgency, what is the Biden administration promising to do about testing?

STEIN: So they're asking Congress for billions to boost testing. And in the meantime, the administration is planning to buy more than 8 million of those recently approved at-home rapid tests and to invest in six other companies to boost production of fast at-home tests to more than 61 million by next summer. Here's Andy Slavitt, the White House senior adviser for the COVID response team, at a recent briefing.


ANDY SLAVITT: Having 60 million more at-home tests available over the course of the summer is exactly what the country needs. I think it will change things pretty significantly.

PFEIFFER: Sixty million is a big number, but this is a country of about 330 million. Will this finally fix the problem?

STEIN: Unfortunately, no, according to the public health experts I've been talking with. They say the U.S. needs to be testing millions of people every day, probably tens of millions, to really slow down the virus. And we need that, like, you know, now. Here's Dr. Michael Mina from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

MICHAEL MINA: The 61 million by the end of the summer is simply not going to cut it. The virus still has an impressive grip on us. So the 61 million coming by the summer is not good enough. We need to be scaling these up today.

STEIN: You know, Mina's been beating the drum for months for the Food and Drug Administration to authorize really fast, cheap, simple tests that could be produced in the tens of millions every day.

PFEIFFER: Are there tests like that even available?

STEIN: Well, you know, they are in other countries. For example, a California company called the Innova Health Group has been selling millions of these tests to about 20 other countries. They only cost about five bucks apiece, but the company hasn't been able to get its tests authorized in this country. I talked with Daniel Elliott. He runs the company.

DANIEL ELLIOTT: I don't really look at it from our business perspective because I'm selling every test I can make around the world. What I look at it from is people are dying. My kids can't go to school. When you can utilize a very simple, cost-effective, readily available test to break the chain of transmission and save lives, it's really frustrating that, you know, our home team is not using these.

STEIN: You know, an administration official told NPR they know more testing is needed. They're doing what they can now, and they'll continue to look for ways to expand testing.

PFEIFFER: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thank you.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.