Reader submitted. Original article by Robby Soave for Reason Magazine, published with approval.
President Joe Biden urged Americans not to panic about the omicron COVID-19 variant during a speech on Tuesday, stressing that he had a plan to deal with the latest pandemic wave: mass testing. The federal government will purchase half a billion COVID-19 tests and distribute them throughout the country for free.
According to The Washington Post:
“This is not March of 2020,” Biden said, referring to the early, pre-vaccine days of the pandemic as he spoke from the White House State Dining Room. “Two hundred million people are fully vaccinated. We’re prepared. We know more.”
The president still issued a grave warning to unvaccinated Americans who he said have a “patriotic duty” to get vaccinated, but he spent much of his speech reassuring Americans the country has the tools to avoid the extreme measures that typified the early months of the pandemic response.
To that end, Biden detailed new plans to expand coronavirus testing sites across the country, distribute a half-billion free at-home tests and deploy more federal health resources to aid strained hospitals as the omicron variant drives a fresh wave of infections.
There’s just one problem with this plan: The tests won’t arrive until January, by which point the omicron variant will have already ravaged the country, notes Reason‘s Ronald Bailey.
The White House could have gotten to work on this plan a little earlier—as recently as two weeks ago, press secretary Jen Psaki mocked the idea of having the government send free tests to all Americans. In many other countries, it’s much easier to procure inexpensive COVID-19 tests, largely because those countries’ regulatory apparatuses are not so slow-moving and bureaucratic.
Indeed, the real problem isn’t that the White House has been too slow to mail tests to every American. The real problem is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have stymied efforts to approve various cheap, rapid test options—a costly mistake that has led to thousands of preventable deaths.
A new report by ProPublica details federal regulators’ infuriating series of screw-ups. For instance, Irene Bosch, an MIT scientist, developed a reliable 15-minute test at the start of the pandemic that only cost $10—and would have cost even less if purchased in bulk. But the FDA refused to approve the test because it wasn’t as accurate as the harder-to-come-by PCR tests.
Bosch’s test didn’t need to be the most accurate test: It just needed to be cheap and easy to mass produce. After all, people who tested positive could always get a PCR for additional verification. What’s more, Bosch’s test measured infectiousness itself:
David Paltiel, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, said a significant part of the problem is that the FDA created a detailed roadmap for tests that give patients a close-to-definitive answer on whether they have COVID-19, but never created a separate framework for rapid tests that serve a different purpose: helping people get frequent, fast evidence of whether they may be contagious.
“The former are tests of infection; the latter are tests of infectiousness,” Paltiel said. “They both share the same regulatory pathway — a pathway that was designed with diagnostic testing in mind and is littered with requirements that make no sense for the purpose they serve.”
He added, “It’s an outrage that rapid tests aren’t dirt cheap and plentiful on grocery store shelves.”
Meanwhile, the CDC thought it could invent its own, superior test—but government scientists screwed up the process, putting the country weeks behind the curve. Testing could have been an important tool for slowing the spread of COVID-19, but the federal government literally decreed that it was illegal to flood the market with tests unless they cleared an improbably, unnecessarily high regulatory burden. From ProPublica:
While E25Bio’s test didn’t catch quite as many cases as those now on the market, it could have been used to catch superspreaders, with warnings that a negative result wouldn’t rule out infection. Experts told us that the test could have been a vital public health tool had it been produced in the millions in 2020 just as COVID-19 was racing across the country undetected.
“Since we didn’t have other options, it would have been a very good test,” said Michael Mina, an epidemiologist who followed E25Bio’s early progress. “If we were going to war, and somebody was invading us, and we had a bunch of revolver pistols, and we didn’t yet have the shipment of machine guns, hell yeah, you’re going to pick up the revolver pistol. You do what you can when you need to in an emergency.”
The government picked up the revolver and promptly shot itself in the foot.