Sep 11, 2021 - Health

A late start to expanding rapid COVID tests

Illustration of a delta symbol being pierced by cotton swabs.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As part of his new COVID-19 plan, President Biden is backing a push to expand testing — including at-home rapid tests.

The big picture: DIY tests offer the potential to regularly surveil people for COVID-19 and get them out of circulation before they can infect others. But the strategy will only be effective if the tests are extremely cheap and plentiful.

Driving the news: In addition to the vaccine mandates that received the lion's share of coverage, Biden announced on Thursday that he would invoke the Defense Production Act to procure 280 million rapid point-of-care — meaning the tests can be processed where they are taken — and over-the-counter tests.

  • Biden also announced he will work with retailers like Walmart and Amazon to begin selling rapid at-home tests at cost over the next three months, while expanding free testing at 10,000 pharmacies across the country.

What they're saying: The plan earned qualified praise from public health experts who have been pushing for more rapid testing, like Harvard's Michael Mina, who tweeted that the expanded push was "tremendously good news," but noted that an additional 280 million rapid tests would still come out to "less than one test per person over the course of a year."

Between the lines: Rapid at-home tests are more valuable as a regular public health intervention than as individual diagnostic tools, which means they need to be cheap enough and accessible enough to be taken multiple times per week.

  • That's been the case in Germany, where free tests have been supplied to everyone since the winter, negative tests are required for nearly every kind of public activity — and the country's per-capita COVID case count is less than a tenth of the U.S. level.
  • But supply chain problems in the U.S. — compounded by the FDA's determination to compare rapid antigen tests to gold-standard PCR diagnostics, which slows development — have kept at-home tests too rare and expensive to make a major dent in the pandemic.

The bottom line: Biden's plan is a start, but it's a start that may have come too late.

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