The NIH would set up a $1 billion “shark tank” fund to fulfill a shortage in Covid-19 tests needed to reopen the nation, under a bill championed by two key Republican senators.
Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) released their plan Tuesday, the same day the Senate passed an emergency stimulus package of up to $500 billion.
Blunt, chairman of the Senate’s health spending panel, said hours before the vote that he expected to provide the National Institutes of Health with $1.8 billion and that $1 billion of it should support the testing program.
The Senate bill provides an additional $25 billion for Covid-19 testing, including the shark tank plan, according to Alexander’s office.
“Prior to the vaccine, testing is the most likely way to really encourage people to re-engage in the economy and in society,” Blunt said. The shark tank funds would mostly be directed to diagnostic tests as “the antibody tests are largely going to take care of” themselves with several companies already at work on that, he said.
The U.S. is conducting about 150,000 tests a day to diagnose cases, according to the Trump administration, but public health experts such as Ashish K. Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, estimate it will take more than 500,000 daily tests to reopen by May 1. Many more antibody tests will be required to understand how far the disease has spread and whether some people have developed immunity that would allow them to return to work.
“We have diagnostic tests but they’re slow. They’re not comfortable to take,” Blunt said. “We’re working hard to find a test that is quickly taken and has a quick response. We think the shark tank concept has the greatest likelihood of narrowing those options that are out there to the most likely that will be successful and then encourage the further production of what those likely tests are.”
Two Million Tests by June
The White House coronavirus task force has said there are now 1 million tests available weekly, with 2 million to 2.5 million becoming available by mid-June, which the senators called “impressive—but not nearly enough” in outlining their proposal Tuesday in a Washington Post op-ed.
The senators’ shark tank plan aims to produce tens of millions of diagnostic tests by August, Alexander’s office said in a statement following Senate passage.
Alexander, as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Blunt, who leads the Senate Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, oversee the National Institutes of Health’s programs and funding, respectively.
Their proposal would be modeled after the ABC television show, in which budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to titans such as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and QVC maven Lori Greiner. Under the Alexander-Blunt plan, the NIH would work with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority—the HHS accelerator that helps private companies develop medical countermeasures—to “underwrite any innovative idea with a chance to succeed.”
There needs to be a way to determine quickly and accurately whether a one-degree increase in temperature means someone should isolate themselves or if they’re OK to go to work, Blunt said. Speedy and frequent testing “is an important part of both protecting our health and getting the economy started again.”
The plan comes after Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on both Blunt’s and Alexander’s panels, released a testing roadmap April 15 to designate $30 billion in new emergency funding to support the rapid expansion and optimization of testing for Covid-19 in the U.S.
That same day, Alexander issued a statement noting Congress has already provided $38 billion to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines. “We should start by using the money Congress has already provided, put politics aside, and work together on more tests with quick results,” the statement said.
Murray’s office didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.