Coronavirus: Testing ‘debacle’ hampered US response

24 March 2020, 06:44

Test tubes
Virus Outbreak Switzerland. Picture: PA

Government labs could only process a dozen tests per day in February.

A series of missteps at the top public health agency in the US caused a critical shortage of reliable laboratory tests for the coronavirus, greatly impeding the government’s response to the pandemic.

President Donald Trump assured Americans early this month that the Covid-19 test developed by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention was “perfect” and that “anyone who wants a test can get a test.”

But more than two months after the first US case of the new disease was confirmed, many people still can not be tested.

CDC data shows in the critical month of February, as the virus began taking root in the US population, government labs processed 352 Covid-19 tests — an average of only a dozen per day.

“You cannot fight a fire blindfolded,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said at a recent briefing. “We cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected.”

The Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the CDC, has begun an internal review to assess its own mistakes.

But outside observers and federal health officials have pointed to four primary issues that together hampered the national response: the early decision not to use the test adopted by the WHO; flaws with the more complex test developed by the CDC; government guidelines restricting who could be tested and; delays in engaging the private sector to ramp up testing capacity.

Combined with messaging from the White House understating the disease, that fuelled a lacklustre response that missed chances to slow the spread of the virus, they said.

“There were many, many opportunities not to end up where we are,” Dr Ashish Jha, director of the Global Health Institute at Harvard, told the Associated Press (AP).

“Basically, they took this as business as usual … and that’s because the messaging from the White House was ‘this is not a big deal, this is no worse than the flu.’ So that message basically created no sense of urgency within the FDA or the CDC to fix it.”

Even as private labs have been cleared by government regulators to process tens of thousands of additional tests in the last two weeks, experts warn the nation is still falling well short of enough testing capacity to keep ahead of the highly contagious virus. And it can often take a week to get results back.

Mr Trump last week rated his administration’s response to the crisis as a perfect 10. However, Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the CDC’s system was not designed to test for and track a widespread outbreak, which he characterised as “a failing”.

In interviews with AP, two federal health officials with direct knowledge of the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said CDC experts did not know why many of the agency’s test kits failed to reliably detect the virus.

Stephen Morrison, a health policy expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called the testing issues a “debacle”, contributing to what he described as a confused and delayed federal response to the crisis.

As a result, he said, the CDC had now been marginalised within the White House, which observers feel is a worrisome development.

“CDC has generally been regarded as the best in the game,” Mr Morrison said.

“I don’t think they anticipated the technical difficulty, or the speed with which the virus has been moving. The virus was racing out ahead of them.”

By Press Association

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