Experts approached WH with idea to produce millions of COVID tests for the holidays -- but were turned down

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

I wish I had thought of ordering 500 million test kits two months ago, Biden told ABC this week.

But he did think of it, or at least members of his staff did. Vanity Fair has the goods about a proposal made to the White House in October — two months ago — to produce 700 million rapid tests per month. The experts behind it were looking backward and looking ahead, remembering last year’s brutal winter wave and hoping to mitigate the next one. Cold weather plus holiday gatherings equals rampant spread with or without a super-contagious new variant and the pros were hoping to get ahead of it. “Testing Surge to Prevent Holiday COVID Surge,” reads page one of their 10-page plan, which VF obtained a copy of.

No can do, Team Biden told them.

So it wasn’t a matter of the president not having thought ahead about the need for rapid tests. It was a matter of his team considering, and then rejecting, a plan to do exactly that.

Their excuse, per Vanity Fair, is that they didn’t have the capacity to produce that many tests on short notice, particularly since the slowfooted FDA has approved only a fraction of the test kits submitted to it by various manufacturers. But that’s not an excuse; all it does is push the critical negligence back further in the timeline. Why wasn’t increasing manufacturing capacity for tests a priority for the White House when Biden took office? And why hasn’t the FDA adjusted its protocols for approving tests during the pandemic given the urgent demand for them?

And if 700 million tests per month were unfeasible in October, how is it that 500 million tests will supposedly hit the market in a matter of weeks under Biden’s new plan?

The incompetence is scandalous, and not just because they failed to anticipate what might happen if a new immune-evasive variant exploded in the U.S. According to VF’s sources, the White House may have deliberately held back on testing because — you guessed it — they feared that making tests widely available would give vaccine holdouts an excuse not to get their shots. Now we’re facing a strain of the virus whose spread can’t be stopped by vaccination, only by isolating the infected, and we don’t have the weapon we need to figure out who’s infected.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assured Americans early this summer that, once vaccinated, they could shed their masks and forgo testing. Those declarations quickly proved untrue as breakthrough infections have risen. “We put all our eggs in the vaccine basket and it’s not enough,” Dr. Jay Wohlgemuth, chief medical officer at Quest Diagnostics, told Vanity Fair.

Three experts who interacted with the White House came to believe that the Biden administration had deprioritized rapid testing, partly out of concern that people would opt for that instead of getting vaccinated. As one expert put it, “It was clear they felt that people who didn’t want to get vaccinated might like no-strings-attached rapid testing.” The White House’s Tom Inglesby said the administration was always committed to both: “In our analysis, they are not competing with each other. They are not zero sum.”

Sources complained to WaPo about the same thing. The Biden administration bought the hype in May that vaccination was about to end COVID and got blindsided when Delta and then Omicron, two variants that can puncture immunity, appeared. “This is a failure of imagination, and failure of leadership is in large part why we’re here,” Leana Wen told the paper. “The Biden administration did a great job with vaccines, but they should have done just as much with testing. I’m very disappointed by their lack of focus on testing earlier, because we saw this one coming.” One former transition official put it this way: “They were like, ‘Great. We can vaccine our way out of this thing, so we don’t need so many tests.””

Oops.

It would be bad enough if the White House had said no to a testing ramp-up for the first time in October, but that wasn’t the first time. Per WaPo, they’d been approached before.

Some in the Biden administration did worry that the White House was being shortsighted. In the spring, well before delta took hold, a group of health-agency officials approached the White House to urge the purchase of millions of rapid tests, according to five senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal discussions.

They warned that without government intervention, the kits would remain hard-to-find and exorbitantly priced. The White House never followed up on the proposal.

Was that the first time Team Biden was warned about testing? Why, no. Vanity Fair cites a document that was sent to the new administration all the way back in January “outlining a national rapid-testing strategy that they argued would enable the country to reopen safely even before the vaccine rollout was complete. It made a case for rapid testing as the most powerful tool to reduce transmission and case counts quickly.” That was Biden’s chance to follow Trump’s lead on vaccines by organizing his very own Operation Warp Speed for testing. Nothing came of it. And now here we are.

Be sure to reserve some blame for the FDA, though. True, they answer to the White House and so their failures are ultimately Biden’s failures, but he got elected promising not to meddle with the public health bureaucracy the way Trump’s administration did. If news broke that Biden’s team was secretly squeezing the FDA to approve rapid tests more quickly, critics would claim that substandard tests were being rushed through to hand the president a political win. That being so, it was incumbent on the FDA to adjust on its own initiative by steering away from extremely high accuracy as the touchstone for approving at-home rapid tests — but it didn’t. “We review data. If the data we’re presented with aren’t great, we’re not going to want the public to use that device,” said one FDA bureaucrat to VF. But that’s stupid under the circumstances. A test that can be taken in a pinch that’s 80 percent accurate in detecting whether you’re contagious may be more useful in limiting the spread than a PCR test that’s 99.9 percent accurate but can only be taken at a pharmacy and won’t give you results for days. The FDA failed here. But then, after two years of the pandemic, we’re used to that.

Here’s Jen Psaki dismissing the idea of sending highly protective N95 masks to all Americans. Hopefully the White House will see the light about why that might be useful before next Christmas, but don’t bet on it.