Updated Dec 22, 2021 - Health

The ongoing U.S. failure on rapid COVID tests

Illustration of a test tube surrounded by metal barriers.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The lightning-quick spread of the Omicron variant has finally made clear the value of cheap and accessible rapid at-home COVID tests.

Why it matters: Omicron moves fast, and rapid tests that can prove infectiousness instantly, rather than PCR lab tests that can take days to get results, can help to stem the spread.

  • But new U.S. policies to provide more tests for free are likely too little, too late to make a meaningful dent in this wave.

Driving the news: Yesterday, President Biden announced his administration would purchase 500 million rapid tests this winter and make them available for Americans to order for free, with the first shipment arriving in January.

  • The White House will also establish new testing sites and invoke the Defense Production Act to help manufacture more diagnostics.

The big picture: While more tests will help — as will providing them free of charge — the U.S. is still hamstrung by months of neglecting the importance of rapid tests and by the FDA's sluggish moves to approve more of them.

  • "Rapid tests are one of the most powerful tools that have not really been utilized in a powerful way in this pandemic," Michael Mina, a former Harvard epidemiologist who is now the chief science officer of the home testing company eMed, said in a press event yesterday.
  • But making at-home tests free won't help much if supplies remain scarce, and 500 million won't go far if Americans are expected to use tests whenever they gather for the foreseeable future.

The bottom line: Rapid tests aren't a panacea — they'll miss some cases, and countries like the U.K. and Germany that have rolled them out in far larger numbers haven't fully escaped Omicron.

  • But they sure would be nice to have now.
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