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Coronavirus Test Kits Spread Through U.S. — And With Them, An Uptick In Cases

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The head of the Food and Drug Administration says he expects a flood of new tests for the coronavirus to be available as soon as this week. Control of the disease has been hampered by the lack of testing capacity. That problem became obvious over the weekend when Washington state reported a burst of new cases. Joining us to talk about the latest is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

Hey, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, just explain something to me here. The first case in the U.S. was diagnosed in January, right? So what has taken so long to expand testing to look for more cases?

HARRIS: Well, the CDC developed a test quite quickly, actually in January, but after they shipped it out in early February, some labs reported they were having problems with it. And the CDC has now spent weeks working with the FDA to decide whether the test is good enough even with those glitches. Finally, they decided it was reliable enough, and they've started shipping it out. But, you know, the U.S. is now really far behind other countries in monitoring for the disease. I mean, there've been thousands and thousands of cases tested in China and elsewhere.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, is the CDC the only place with the ability to create a test?

HARRIS: Not at all, actually. There's a commercial test that's out there, also, but until now, it has only been approved for research purposes. And there are multiple tests used widely overseas. But labs at major medical centers are used to creating their own tests. They did that in this case, too. And usually, they can just start using tests like this because the government certifies their labs and doesn't certify every single test that comes out. But because the government decided to declare this a health emergency, that, ironically, created new hoops for these labs to jump through, and they now need some sort of FDA approval to get through that. The FDA announced a system for doing that approval process on Saturday.

I talked to Dr. Melissa Miller at the University of North Carolina Medical Center. She's one of the many lab scientists who's actually developed a test for the coronavirus.

MELISSA MILLER: We've been slowed down by weeks, because this test has been ready since Valentine's Day. So I don't think we're going to know the scope of what we're dealing with in the U.S. until we can get all of these labs onboard, including centers such as ours and other academic medical centers doing their own testing.

CHANG: All right, but now it sounds like we're about to see a big improvement. Tell us about that.

HARRIS: Right. At the White House this evening, the FDA commissioner, Stephen Hahn, said that their action on Saturday has led to a flood of interest, and it looks like they've tapped a potentially huge reservoir of pent-up potential.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHEN HAHN: With this new policy, we've heard from multiple companies and multiple academic centers, and we expect to have a substantial increase in the number of tests this week, next week and throughout the month. The estimates that we're getting from the industry right now - by the end of this week, close to a million tests will be able to be performed.

CHANG: A million tests - that sounds really dramatic.

HARRIS: Indeed, it does. But, you know, even if these companies and the university labs do develop these testing materials, it does take a lot of effort to run these tests. So don't expect that we'll get an instant snapshot of what the virus is - how it's spreading in the country. You know, it will - you know. So health officials will need to pick and choose still who can get tested. And so this effort, at least in the short term, will focus on outbreaks like the one in Seattle, as well as other selected areas around the country.

CHANG: OK, so let's say I think I should be tested. How does that even work?

HARRIS: Well, I don't think it's going to be your choice. You can't just go to your doctor's office and say, I've got this cough; can you test me for the coronavirus? I think this will be up to medical centers and public health officials who - to decide who needs to be tested. And again, because it takes time to run this test, they're not going to just say all comers can get tested. They will pick and choose, to some extent, who will be tested. So, you know, there's going to be a lot of frustration, I'm predicting, because people really want to know. A lot of people have a cough, and they're thinking, oh, do I have a coronavirus?

CHANG: Sure.

HARRIS: I think those questions are not going to be answered very readily. And honestly, at some point, if this outbreak continues to grow, public health officials may simply not be able to test everyone with symptoms. I mean, in fact, they don't test people with flu symptoms today.

CHANG: That is true.

HARRIS: So that might be the fate of this disease as well.

CHANG: That is NPR's Richard Harris.

Thanks, Richard.

HARRIS: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.