US president Donald Trump is facing mounting pressure to approve a new federal funding for coronavirus testing as overwhelmed laboratories struggle to keep up with demand amid a spike in Covid-19 in many states.
The delays facing many Americans as they seek to know whether they have Covid-19, more than four months since the disease began spreading across the country, has resurfaced as a big vulnerability in the US struggle to contain the virus.
It is also given additional ammunition for Democrats to attack Mr Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, at a time when the latest polls show him trailing Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, by a wide margin heading into the November election.
“The national testing scene is a complete disgrace. So, every test we send out to private lab partners nationally, Quest, Labcorp, [takes] seven days, eight days, nine days maybe six days if we’re lucky,” Jared Polis, the Democratic governor of Colorado, said in an interview with NBC on Sunday. “Almost useless from an epidemiological or even diagnostic perspective,” he added.
Public health experts say a seven-day wait time renders testing virtually pointless.
Barry Bloom, a professor of public health at Harvard University, said: “When it takes five to seven days to get the test back, the person has already likely spread it. The infectious period for major high level viral loads is five days. If you don’t get them isolated in five days, you’ve missed the opportunity largely to stop them from transmitting.”
Earlier this week, Rajiv Shah, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, told the FT. “With the seven-day lead time you basically aren’t testing at all: it’s the structural equivalent of doing zero tests.”
LabCorp and Quest, the largest private laboratory operators, have said they are struggling to cope with a surge in demand for coronavirus testing following the explosion of new cases in several states in the south and west.
The companies are able to process a combined 265,000 tests a day, with plans to increase that to 300,000 later this month. However, that still falls well short of demand at a time when more than 5m nasal swabs are being taken each week.
A spokesperson for LabCorp said: “Until recently, we have been able to deliver test results back to patients on average between one to two days from the date of specimen pick-up. But with significant increases in testing demand and constraints in the availability of supplies . . . the average time to deliver results may now be four to six days from specimen pick-up. For hospitalised patients, the average time for results is faster.”
A spokesperson for Quest said: “Even though Quest has ramped up tremendous capacity and is referring specimens to our lab referral partners to further broaden access, demand for diagnostic testing is growing even faster.”
On Saturday, the US Food and Drug Administration said it would allow Quest to conduct “pooled testing” in an attempt to speed up processing times. The method enables the lab to test four patients’ samples in the same “well” at the same time.
If the pooled sample tests negative, then all patients are informed they do not have the virus. If it tests positive, then lab technicians must examine each sample individually.
Democrats on Capitol Hill in May passed legislation that included $75bn in additional funding for testing and contact tracing, and even some Republicans in the Senate have endorsed the idea of additional funding. But according to the Washington Post, the White House has been resisting the inclusion of any more money for testing and tracing in the negotiations over a new stimulus package, which are expected to intensify in the coming days on Capitol Hill.
Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, suggested in an NBC interview on Sunday that the White House position had been underwhelming on the issue, but could evolve.
“There’s always this back-and-forth between White House and Congress when it comes to appropriations process. And apparently the opening bid from the White House was a bit surprising, certainly for many of us who were certainly hoping to see more in the way of support,” Mr Collins said. “But this is one of those things that will play out over the course of the coming days. Let’s see where it ends up,” he added.
On the same programme, Mike DeWine, the Republican governor of Ohio, said he was “very, very concerned” that his state was “headed in the wrong direction” with regards to Covid-19, and more federal money would be needed for the healthcare response.
“We’re going to continue to need money for testing. We have doubled the testing in the last five weeks. Frankly, we need to double it again. We can only do that with money coming in from the federal government. And it has to be over a long period of time. We’re not going to be out of this in a month, or two months, or three months,” he said.
Mr Trump has repeatedly blamed Covid-19 testing for amplifying the number of cases of the disease in America, even though quick and easily available diagnostics are considered a crucial weapon for health authorities in the pandemic.
“You look at other countries; they don’t even do tests. They do tests if somebody walks into the hospital, they’re sick, they’re really sick, they test them then, or they’ll test them in a doctor’s office,” Mr Trump said in a Fox News Sunday interview.
“But they don’t go around having massive areas of testing and we do. And I’m glad we do, but it really skews the numbers.”
The US president’s re-election chances have taken a big hit as more Americans have lost confidence in his leadership over the course of the pandemic. According to the Realclearpolitics.com polling average, Mr Biden is leading Mr Trump by 8.6 percentage points nationally and 5.3 percentage points in the swing states. An ABC/ Washington Post poll on Sunday found Mr Biden leading by 15 percentage points among registered voters.
In the interview broadcast on Sunday Mr Trump insisted that he was not “losing”, the polls were “fake” and Mr Biden, the former Delaware senator and former vice-president under Barack Obama, lacked the competence to be president. “Biden can’t put two sentences together,” he said.
In a bizarre exchange with Chris Wallace, the Fox News Sunday anchor, Mr Trump said he had passed a cognitive test proving his greater aptitude for the job compared to Mr Biden. But Mr Wallace rebutted: “Well it’s not the hardest test. They have a picture and it says “what’s that” and it’s an elephant”.
Mr Trump responded that Mr Wallace’s description was a “misrepresentation” since the first few questions were easy but the last five were difficult.
“Well, one of them was count back from 100 by seven,” Mr Wallace responded again.