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CDC Resolves Coronavirus Test Problem, Meaning Wider And Quicker Testing


Federal health officials say they have resolved a problem with the government's coronavirus test, a problem that has hindered efforts to control the spread of the dangerous new infection. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here to explain all.

Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, there.

KELLY: Start us off by just explaining why this test is so critical.

STEIN: You know, it's really crucial, Mary Louise, because right now there's only about 60 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. But if the country's going to try to keep the virus from taking hold here and really start to spread, a key weapon is finding any infections quickly. And it's got to be happening now in this critical window before there's a lot of virus around. I talked to Kelly Wroblewski about this. She's in charge of infectious diseases at the Association for Public Health Laboratories.

KELLY WROBLEWSKI: So we don't think it's spreading very widely yet. But, of course, if you're not looking for something, you won't find it.

STEIN: Yeah, so finding a person quickly is really important because once you do that, you can do things like isolate that person and make sure they get the treatment they need and don't infect anybody else.

WROBLEWSKI: You would probably go ahead and test their family members to see if their close contacts have also gotten the disease. And then you can maybe limit the spread if you catch it early.

KELLY: So the case there for doing this early, doing it urgently - how does that fit in though, Rob, with this new case in California that could be the first case here in the U.S. that did not somehow start overseas? We're told there was a delay in testing that patient.

STEIN: Yeah, so the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where the patient is being treated - they say neither the county nor the state could test this patient, so they asked the CDC to do the testing for them. But that was delayed because the person didn't meet the CDC's very strict criteria for testing.

KELLY: But - so bottom line, if this is so critical and urgent, why hasn't testing been happening all over the country? What's the holdup?

STEIN: Yeah, so the problem has been is that there's no way for most state and local labs around the country to do their own testing, so pretty much all the testing has had to go through the CDC in Atlanta. And that's created a real bottleneck. And the reason for that is that one of the three steps in the CDC's test kit hasn't been working, but that's finally been resolved. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar explained this during a congressional hearing today.


ALEX AZAR: The FDA authorized the use of those tests by using just the first and second step - provide a definitive diagnostic. So 40 labs are qualified to already be doing that.

KELLY: So what are public health experts saying about this - that the testing will finally be available and widely available?

STEIN: Right. They're saying this is a really important steps. The labs - they'd gotten so frustrated by the delays that they'd asked the FDA to let them start using their own tests. But now, if the CDC's test seems to really be finally working, it will give them a powerful tool to fight the spread of the virus on the frontlines. Here's Kelly Wroblewski again from the Public Health Lab Association (ph).

WROBLEWSKI: With the potential for additional spread, I think having these additional laboratories onboard and ready to test is going to just put us in a much, much better position to respond. It's really good news.

STEIN: So the hope is that almost a hundred labs around the country will soon be able to start looking for the coronavirus and even, eventually, start testing samples from people who doctors might suspect at first just have the flu or something like that to see if they really might actually have the coronavirus.

KELLY: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein with an update there on coronavirus and testing for it.

Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.