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Where Are the Tests?

todaySeptember 21, 2021 6

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Biden’s new Covid action plan, announced this month, calls for an expansion of rapid testing, although it seems unlikely to be big enough to make rapid tests widely available. “The recognition by the president that this is a tool we haven’t been using yet, and we should be using, is a massive step forward,” Mina told me. But, he added, “It’s woefully inadequate.”

Elizabeth Stuart, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, recently wrote: “I am more and more convinced we need to dramatically increase access and affordability of at-home rapid antigen Covid-19 tests.” Zoë McLaren, a health economist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, added: “So many preventable deaths are on the line.”

Several experts have called on Biden to issue an executive order reclassifying rapid tests as a public health tool rather than a medical device. If that happened, the companies selling many tests in Europe, like Abbott and Roche, would quickly flood the U.S. market, experts say. The tests would not be free but would likely be substantially cheaper than they are now.

White House officials told me that they expect rapid tests to become more widely available and less expensive soon. The administration awarded contracts on Monday that will lead to the delivery of 120 million at-home tests, starting next month. But the tests are not likely to become anywhere near as available as they are in much of Western Europe. The Biden administration wants to continue to defer to the F.D.A. about what kind of test is rigorous enough to offer the public.

France and Germany, for their part, will be ending universal free rapid testing this fall, in an attempt to encourage vaccination. People with symptoms will still receive free tests, but many others will have to pay.

Covid isn’t disappearing anytime soon. So long as it continues to circulate and cause both serious illness and anxiety, rapid testing is arguably the only way society can return to something that resembles normal life.

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