Shortages threaten Trump’s plan for rapid coronavirus tests

August 9, 2020

The Trump administration is gambling that a new generation of fast, cheap coronavirus tests can bring the U.S. outbreak under control. The challenge now is getting enough of these tests to pursue that strategy.

The rapid antigen tests, which hunt for proteins on the virus’ surface, give results in less than 30 minutes. They are less accurate than lab tests now in widespread use, which detect the virus’s genetic material and take hours to analyze. But a growing number of public health experts say trading off accuracy for speed is a gamble worth taking, as testing labs struggle to clear days-long backlogs.

Getting more test results in a matter of minutes, rather than days, could help public health agencies move faster to quarantine the sick and trace their contacts. Many see the rapid antigen tests as the tool that could finally contain the U.S. outbreak — just in time for the annual flu season, which begins in October.

Trump’s testing czar, Brett Giroir, has said he hopes to have 20 million rapid point-of-care tests available per month by September. But some health experts estimate the U.S. needs as many as 25 million of the tests per week by October to ensure the safe operation of schools, health facilities and other essential workplaces.

Nursing homes have been told it could be months before antigen tests are available in sufficient numbers. And states, which have spent months scrambling for protective equipment and testing supplies on the open market, are now competing for the tests.

Manufacturers of antigen tests say they are nowhere near able to meet demand.

Doug Bryant, president and CEO of test-maker Quidel, told investors last week that demand “will far exceed what all of the manufacturers in the rapid antigen space can produce, for at least the next several quarters.”

BD, the only other manufacturer with an antigen test on the market, anticipates producing 10 million test kits from July to September. It plans to increase production to 8 million per month in October and then 12 million a month by March 2021. President and CEO Tom Polen said Thursday that demand for antigen tests will "exceed supply in the foreseeable future at least."