Covid-19 Testing Capacity a Month Away, Lab Scientists Warn

March 23, 2020, 6:47 PM

The U.S. won’t likely reach full Covid-19 testing capacity for at least another month due to shortages of supplies and skilled lab workers, even though commercial labs are coming on board to perform the tests.

Cindy Johnson, president of the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science, said Monday those estimates stem from discussions with manufacturers making reagents—chemicals necessary to run the test—as well as shortages in swabs and vials that are necessary to collect patient samples.

“If it comes sooner, that will definitely be a gift to all of us,” Johnson, the senior director for laboratory services for the CentraCare health system in Minnesota, said in an interview. “It’s trying to get those reagents. And how many can they release?”

The society wrote to House and Senate leadership as lawmakers work to finalize the third major bill to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak. "[W]e are unlikely to see the needed SARS-CoV2/COVID-19 testing capacity for at least a month and perhaps more, even under the best of circumstances,” the society wrote in a letter Saturday.

The society asked Congress to meet the request from the American Clinical Laboratory Association, the commercial laboratory trade group, for $5 billion in an emergency laboratory surge capacity fund for laboratories performing Covid-19 tests.

“As we continue to see this pandemic grow across the country, we as a nation are going to have to say, who needs this first?” Johnson said.

The letter comes as the Trump administration promises that testing will accelerate, especially since commercial laboratories like LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics have come on board to offer tests. The White House will provide Monday a detailed update on the progress with testing, Vice President Mike Pence said.

“We’re working to make testing happen faster. We expect from word from the commercial labs that we should be caught up on the backlog in testing by the middle of the week,” Pence said at a press conference Sunday.

About 195,000 people have been tested in the U.S., but that doesn’t account for 15,000 hospital-based lab tests or testing that’s in progress, Brett Giroir, the coronavirus testing czar and the assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Services said Saturday.

The society, which says it represents tens of thousands laboratory professionals, said the method used to test for Covid-19 also requires skilled personnel to isolate the coronavirus RNA and reverse transcribe it into DNA for analysis in an appropriate instrument.

“References to ‘tests’ in the context of COVID-19 often provide the misleading impression that this is like the strep and influenza Point of Care (POC) tests many of your constituents are familiar with in their physician’s office,” the letter said.

Johnson said the White House isn’t overpromising because manufacturers really are ramping up production of the supplies and reagents necessary to run the tests. But while testing ramps up, it’s critical to make sure that tests first reach patients who need them the most.

“I don’t think anybody’s wrong here,” she said. “Are they ramping it up? The answer is yes, they’re getting more stuff on the market but let’s get the testing in those vulnerable areas.”

A spokesperson for the ACLA also said it’s critical to prioritize who gets tested. The association has been calling for clear guidelines around screening to ensure that high-risk patients are quickly identified and tested as soon as possible.

“This is increasingly important given the supply challenges we face. Specimen collection swabs and personal protective equipment are running low. Laboratories are working closely with federal agencies to address the shortages we are facing, but the most immediate action we can take right now is to prioritize who gets tested,” the ACLA spokesperson said in an email Monday. “Our ability to make headway against this pandemic hinges on the availability of testing.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at jbaumann@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Melissa B. Robinson at mrobinson@bloomberglaw.com, Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloomberglaw.com

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