The Health 202: Manufacturers promise plenty of coronavirus tests for a possible second wave in the fall

with Paulina Firozi

It took months, but coronavirus screening has finally surged to more than 400,000 tests performed daily in the United States — close to the Trump administration’s stated goal.

Capacity has increased so much, manufacturers say, that they’re not worried about meeting demand for testing if there’s a second wave of cases in the fall.

“We’re positioned really well to do testing on a more massive level,” Scott Whitaker, president of the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed), told me in an interview Wednesday.

“There is more capacity than we’re using today, across the board,” he added.

Eighteen million diagnostic tests for the novel coronavirus have been performed in the United States, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Six weeks ago, just 4.6 million tests had been performed in the United States. But the numbers steadily climbed throughout the month of May. 

More than 3 million tests were performed in the past week, meeting the goal set by Health Secretary Alex Azar for weekly tests. A little more than 5 percent of the U.S. population has now been tested.

Whitaker had promised in April that manufacturers would be able to provide supplies for 25 million tests by the end of April and increase that “significantly” by the end of May. He told me his members have met their goal — even though labs haven’t yet fully tapped into the increased capacity.

“Our companies don’t actually run the tests,” Whitaker said. “I feel like we’re meeting the demand, and if the demand increases we can continue to meet that demand.”

Yet some governors are still worried about testing capacity.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) told a congressional committee this week that her state has a goal of 30,000 tests per day and is halfway there. She said supply shortages are still hindering labs in the state, which have the capacity to perform 200,000 tests a day.

At the same hearing, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) said he hasn’t always received transparent information about supplies from the federal government, which has stepped in to help shore up parts of the supply chain.

“Really, knowing what we’re going to get, when,” Polis said. “Lot of discussions that left us, as a state, not knowing … are there going to be masks? Are there going to be tests?”

Increasing testing capacity has been a slow, hard slog.

Member companies of AdvaMed — which make the swabs, test kits, reagents and other supplies necessary for carrying out coronavirus tests — struggled throughout the spring to meet massive, unprecedented demand, as the nation was gripped by a virus that is easily transmitted even by people with no symptoms.

Even as the Trump administration promised a swift increase in testing, the industry grappled with supply chain shortages and labs struggled to get the many supplies they need for the whole process of carrying out a coronavirus test — from collecting a sample, to preparing it for analysis, to running it through the testing machine and getting a result.

And now the protests over police violence are forcing some testing sites to close.

Around 70 sites around the country have had to close because of destruction from civil unrest, according to figures compiled by HHS. The department began these Community-Based Testing Sites program in March, with most of the locations chosen because they are in what public health officials call “socially vulnerable” neighborhoods, The Post’s Amy Goldstein reports.

The sites include four pharmacies owned by Michael and Joan Kim in Anacostia, Georgetown and on Capitol Hill, all part of the federal program for free tests. They watched on their iPhones Monday night as security cameras showed the back of a U-Haul van ramming through the glass side wall of the Grubb’s pharmacy they own in Southeast Washington, cold medicine, allergy pills and bandages flying as wooden shelves splintered and crashed to the floor.

The National Pharmacists Association issued a statement decrying reports of damage and looting of its members. “These are all family-owned businesses that have been serving people in their communities for years, and sometimes generations, and have been on front lines of health care during the covid-19 pandemic,” the trade group said in a statement issued yesterday.

Illinois closed all its community-based testing sites on Monday and Tuesday. Florida and Pennsylvania closed some sites temporarily. So did Los Angeles County, which still had some sites closed or operating under reduced hours on Wednesday.

“We are committed to ensuring that our testing sites are safe for both patients and staff,” Christina Ghaly, d

irector of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, said in a statement. “Testing remains a priority as we continue to fight the spread of coronavirus in LA County.” 

And then there’s this: Even though capacity is up, not enough people appear to be seeking tests. 

A Washington Post survey of governor’s offices and state health departments found at least a dozen states where testing capacity outstrips the supply of patients, Steve Thompson, Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis reported last month.

It’s not entirely clear why this is the case, although experts pointed to several possible answers. People may still be accustomed to initially strict limitations on who could get tested. Or they might have concerns about cost or convenience, or be skeptical about testing operations.

“A lot of states put in very, very restrictive testing policies . . . because they didn’t have any tests. And they’ve either not relaxed those, or the word is not getting out,” Ashish Jha, who directs the Harvard Global Health Institute, told my colleagues. “We want to be at a point where everybody who has mild symptoms is tested. That is critical. That is still not happening in a lot of places.”

Ahh, oof and ouch

AHH: It’s like the U.S. and China are racing each other to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

There are five experimental vaccines being tested in China and four being tested in the United States. The two countries have taken on a big financial risk to scale up production of vaccine candidates before it’s known whether vaccine candidates are effective to make sure they can deploy doses quickly once the verdict is in.

In the process, the vaccine race has become a geopolitical contest, Carolyn Y. Johnson and Eva Dou report.

“The nation that produces the first safe and effective vaccine will gain not only bragging rights but also a fast track to put its people back to work, a powerful public health tool to protect its citizens and a precious resource to reward allies,” they write. “In an election year in the United States, the prospect of a successful vaccine by year’s end could also be a potent campaign tool.”

They add: “Who gets the vaccine first matters not just for national pride but because that country’s citizens will almost certainly get first access to limited doses — even if the virus is raging in another part of the world.” 

Anthony S. Fauci downplayed any rivalry between the nations and said multiple vaccines will be necessary to meet global demand. 

“I think both countries are eminently capable of developing a vaccine,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told The Post. “I’m cautiously optimistic that both countries will be successful in developing a vaccine for their own country.”

OOF: Many of the first coronavirus testing sites were in areas that happened to be whiter and more affluent. 

That’s according to interviews with nearly 60 public health experts, lawmakers and community leaders who said the sites were placed there despite requests from black leaders.

Local governments also focused few of their coronavirus education campaigns, including guidance about social distancing, on African Americans. 

“Poor reporting of data, which initially masked the fact that the disease was disproportionately affecting black communities, remains a problem even as states move to reopen their economies,” Robert Samuels, Aaron Williams, Tracy Jan and Jose A. Del Real report. “Today, Americans living in counties with above-average black populations are three times as likely to die of the coronavirus as those in above-average white counties, according to an analysis of census and other data by The Washington Post.”

Some tried to sound the alarm early. 

Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins in March created a map that showed cases were clustering downtown and in black neighborhoods. 

“He had shared his computerized map, with its telling clusters of red pins, with black clergy on April 1, enlisting their help in sounding an alarm on what he deemed hot spots,” Robert, Aaron, Tracy and Jose write. “…Yet in the midst of a global pandemic, other local leaders appeared nervous about Perkins publicizing his findings. It resurrected a familiar conversation in this country, in times of crisis or not, about whether drawing attention to race would do more harm than good.” 

They add: “Those concerns initially helped delay the release of data about the virus’s racial impact.”

OUCH: Hydroxychloroquine did not prevent healthy people from getting covid-19, a new trial shows.

The first randomized clinical trial testing the antimalarial drug hyped by the president found it was no more effective than a placebo at preventing the disease caused by the coronavirus, Laurie McGinley and Ariana Eunjung Cha report.

“The results were the latest development in a highly charged medical and political issue — the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in combating covid-19,” they write. “Trump has repeatedly touted the drug as a ‘game changer’ for covid-19 and recently said he took a course of it. But federal regulators have said it should be used only for hospitalized patients or in clinical trials, because of possible side effects including serious heart-rhythm issues.”

The trial’s researchers enrolled more than 800 adults in the United States and Canada who were exposed to someone with covid-19 in their jobs as health workers or first responders or because they lived with someone who had contracted the coronavirus.

“Overall, about 12 percent given the drug developed covid-19, while 14 percent given the placebo also did — not a statistical difference,” Laurie and Ariana write. 

The Trump administration’s efforts

The White House is set to announce five companies as the most likely to produce a coronavirus vaccine. 

The announcement will be made in the next few weeks, the New York Times’s Noah Weiland and David E. Sanger report. 

“By winnowing the field in a matter of weeks from a pool of around a dozen companies, the federal government is betting that it can identify the most promising vaccine projects at an early stage, speed along the process of determining which will work and ensure that the winner or winners can be quickly manufactured in huge quantities and distributed across the country,” they write. 

The companies are biotechnology firm Moderna; Oxford University in partnership with AstraZeneca; and pharmaceutical companies Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Pfizer.

Here’s what went wrong for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long considered the world’s premier health agency. 

Early efforts to screen travelers who may have been carrying the novel coronavirus tested the agency.  

“But the effort was frustrated as the C.D.C.’s decades-old notification system delivered information collected at the airports that was riddled with duplicative records, bad phone numbers and incomplete addresses. For weeks, officials tried to track passengers using lists sent by the C.D.C., scouring information about each flight in separate spreadsheets,” the New York Times’s Eric Lipton, Abby Goodnough, Michael D. Shear, Megan Twohey, Apoorva Mandavilli, Sheri Fink and Mark Walker report. 

But the faulty early process “was an early revelation for some health departments, whose confidence in the C.D.C. was shaken as it confronted the most urgent public health emergency in its 74-year history.” 

Those early mistakes have contributed to a series of ongoing problems, the reporters write.

Amid a pandemic, protests continue

People protesting the killing of George Floyd could also be spreading the coronavirus.

A protester who participated in a Columbus, Ohio, demonstration last week was carrying the virus. Columbus Public Health announced that someone within the protest group had tested positive for it.

“Although the department did not reveal when testing took place, the individual had exhibited symptoms before attending the protest,” Candace Buckner writes for The Post’s live blog. 

“According to several accounts of the May 28 protest near the Ohio Statehouse, protesters, in close contact with one another, had a standoff against police. Later in the evening, the scene grew violent with reports of vandalism as some in the crowd shattered windows of the Capitol and breached the building. Columbus police released pepper spray to break up the crowd.”

Oklahoma State University linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga tweeted that he tested positive for coronavirus after protesting in Tulsa.

Tear gas used on protestors may increase the risk of respiratory illness. 

“Along with the immediate pain that can cause watering eyes and burning throats, tear gas may cause damage to people’s lungs and make them more susceptible to getting a respiratory illness, according to studies on the risks of exposure,” the New York Times’s Mike Baker reports. “The gas can also incite coughing, which can further spread the virus from an infected person.” 

“Health experts have watched with growing alarm in recent days at the widespread, increased use of smoke and irritating chemicals on American protesters in the middle of the pandemic,” Abigail Hauslohner, William Wan and Nick Miroff report. “They fear the tear gas is accelerating the coronavirus’s spread and making people more susceptible to it.”

The White House insists federal authorities did not use tear gas on the Lafayette Square crowd this week. 

“The Park Police acknowledged firing ‘pepper balls,’ a projectile munition that lofts irritant powder into the air, and ‘smoke canisters’ to scatter the crowd Monday. The agency has not provided more details about the contents of the smoke it deployed, and a spokesman for the Park Police did not respond to requests seeking clarification Wednesday,” they write. 

According to the CDC, pepper sprays are a type of tear gas. The agency says several compounds fall under the category of riot-control agents. “Among others, they include chloroacetophenone (CN), more commonly referred to as ‘mace,’ or pepper sprays,” our colleagues write. “Such compounds are all typically referred to as ‘tear gas’ because their most prominent effect is to irritate mucus membranes, including the eyes, which secrete tears as a protective response.” 

Coronavirus latest

A few more stories to catch up on this morning: 

On the front lines: 
  • The coronavirus has infected at least 450,000 health-care workers around the world, according to a report issued by the Geneva-based International Council of Nurses.
Finding a treatment: 
  • The World Health Organization is continuing a clinical trial examining hydroxychloroquine as a covid-19 treatment following a pause to assess safety concerns, Stat News’s Andrew Joseph reports.
Congress on the coronavirus: 
  • The funds from the massive economic relief measure Congress approved nine weeks ago have been largely spent or accounted for, the Wall Street Journal’s Kate Davidson and Paul Kiernan reports.
In the states: 
  • Nearly 70 percent of Texans who are registered to vote believe it is “very” or “somewhat” likely another wave of coronavirus cases mean businesses there will have to close again, a Quinnipiac University poll found, as Miriam Berger writes for The Post’s live blog.
Around the world: 
  • Sweden’s chief epidemiologist said the country “clearly” could have done better in tackling the coronavirus. “He said that in hindsight Sweden could have been better prepared and have started testing earlier and more extensively,” Reuters’s Johan Ahlander and Simon Johnson report. “Sweden has a lower COVID-19 mortality rate than European countries such as Britain, Spain and Italy which enforced stringent lockdowns.”

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