U.S. Coronavirus Testing Gets A Potential Breakthrough U.S. public health experts say they're "flying blind" because they need much more testing to know how widespread the outbreak is. But a just-approved test could be a game-changer.
NPR logo

U.S. Coronavirus Testing Gets A Potential Breakthrough

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/815522836/815778459" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
U.S. Coronavirus Testing Gets A Potential Breakthrough

U.S. Coronavirus Testing Gets A Potential Breakthrough

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/815522836/815778459" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And the U.S. has had a serious testing problem with the coronavirus. Only around 15,000 people have been tested, according to the CDC, and public health experts say that's not nearly enough to know how widespread the outbreak is and how to respond. But the FDA has just approved a new test that could be a big breakthrough, as NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: If you think you have strep throat or the regular flu, you can walk into a clinic and get tested. So why not for the coronavirus? Well, the initial test approved by the FDA is more complex and requires specialized training and equipment. Until this week, some of the supplies to do the test had to come from a single company in Germany, and it couldn't meet the demand.

Kelly Wroblewski is the director of infectious disease programs at the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

KELLY WROBLEWSKI: So the big players that normally sell things like the influenza test kits or rapid strep test kits to hospitals - they haven't had assays authorized yet by FDA.

ARNOLD: So in other words, the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. and the world haven't been able to pitch in and help. But that just changed in a very big way.

PAUL BROWN: Yeah. We're very excited to share the news that, overnight, we got emergency use authorization from the FDA.

ARNOLD: Paul Brown is a senior executive for the giant pharmaceutical company Roche. He says it has a new test that's more simple and quicker to get results. And Roche has already ramped up production, so...

BROWN: We have about 400,000 tests that are available for the U.S. market. And then we're expecting to manufacture for the U.S. market about 1.5 million tests or so per month going forward.

ARNOLD: That is a lot more tests than have been administered so far, and he says a hundred Roche machines that are already in use across the U.S. are each capable of processing more than a thousand tests per day.

So just how big a deal is this? Michael Mina is an associate medical director of virology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

MICHAEL MINA: If that can be introduced and they can keep up that type of manufacturing, I think that will be one of the pieces that turns out to be sort of a game-changer in the testing capacity in the United States.

ARNOLD: Mina and other public health experts say dramatically ramping up testing is crucial to saving lives. Marc Lipsitch directs the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard's School of Public Health. He says testing is needed at emergency rooms in every major metro area - scientific sampling so we can get reliable estimates on just how many Americans actually have this virus.

MARC LIPSITCH: I think we're flying almost completely blind right now. We have a lot of uncertainty about whether there are 10 times more or a hundred times more cases than we know about.

ARNOLD: Other countries appear to have been doing a better job with testing. South Korea, by one recent count, had been testing 700 times as many people per capita as the U.S.

Michael Mina says it's striking just how unprepared this country has turned out to be to face an outbreak like this. He thinks we'll learn a lot from it, but with so much at stake...

MINA: I just wish that we had really begun to take this problem seriously as a country two months ago versus really focusing on it just within the last couple of weeks.

ARNOLD: Roche says it will start shipping those 400,000 test kits this weekend. Even so, Mina says it could still be a few weeks before all this ramps up enough to let us get a much better estimate on how many people have the virus and where all the hot spots are so the infectious disease experts know how best to respond.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.