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Federal Authorities Grapple With Shortage Of Coronavirus Test Kits

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The director-general of the World Health Organization says the number of coronavirus cases worldwide is nearing 100,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: This is not the time to give up. This is not a time for excuses. This is a time for pulling out all the stops.

INSKEEP: Two things are happening now - one is that the outbreak is being detected more and more places. The other is that we may be closer to understanding just how widespread it is. New sources of testing for the virus are becoming available. NPR's Allison Aubrey has details on both these developments. She's in our studios. Good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Where are new cases emerging?

AUBREY: You know, really, all over the country. There are now confirmed cases in 20 states. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has declared a state of emergency in that state after three people tested positive. All three are in Montgomery County. That's the suburban Washington, D.C., area.

INSKEEP: Not that we here in Washington have a personal interest in that bit of news, but...

AUBREY: Exactly, when it hits home. Right.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

AUBREY: There's a husband and wife in their 70s, a woman in her 50s. They are believed to have gotten sick while traveling overseas. Tennessee has confirmed its first case. Colorado announced its first presumptive positive case. And in California, Governor Gavin Newsom says at least 21 people aboard a cruise ship that is now floating off the California coast are showing symptoms. Imagine being on that ship, Steve.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

AUBREY: And a helicopter has dropped test kits to the ship.

INSKEEP: Ah, test kits. That's the next question here.

AUBREY: All right.

INSKEEP: There's been so much concern about a shortage of test kits. What's happening there?

AUBREY: Well, some academic hospitals are developing their own tests. And commercial options are expanding really quickly. Quest Diagnostics says it will launch a coronavirus test on Monday. The company says it will be in a position to receive samples from hospitals, physician offices. And another big company, LabCorp, says it now has a test available that can be ordered by doctors, other health care providers. Now, results can take three or four days. Positive results will be reported to local health officials and to the CDC.

INSKEEP: What's the Trump administration doing as more information comes in?

AUBREY: Well, the White House signed an $8 billion emergency spending bill to combat the coronavirus. The money can be used to help develop a vaccine, help stockpile supplies, could be - help state and local health departments with, say, testing, surveillance.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's going on. And you've been following up on a particular aspect of this.

AUBREY: Yes.

INSKEEP: We keep being told that people who are ill or older are much more vulnerable.

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: It follows that children would be much less vulnerable. But you've been looking at what's happened with children. What is that?

AUBREY: That's right. Well, there are a few confirmed cases among teens here in the U.S. And the infectious disease experts I speak to say, you know, as the testing ramps up, there will probably be more cases. But generally, as you say, kids don't seem to be as vulnerable to this virus - at least that's what's been documented in China. When they get infected, they tend to have very mild symptoms. But it's still important to diagnose them. Here's what Andrew Janowski told me. He's an infectious disease doctor at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

ANDREW JANOWSKI: These children can actually be shedding the virus even if they have very minimal symptoms. So children may be important in the chain of spreading this virus because they may be mildly symptomatic or have no symptoms and be able to spread it to others.

INSKEEP: OK. So good news - the kids are OK.

AUBREY: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Bad news - they could be a vector for disease, if that's the appropriate word.

AUBREY: Spread it to grandma, somebody else. That's exactly right. You know, there are a couple of possible explanations as to why kids seem so resilient. One possibility is because other common coronaviruses can circulate among kids frequently. Many may have some kind of cross-protection or immunity.

INSKEEP: Oh, they've been exposed to something like it in the past...

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...And it's almost like they've been vaccinated in a way.

AUBREY: A little bit. A little bit of cross-protection. That's one theory. But experts say it's possible that children with underlying medical conditions may get really sick if they get the coronavirus. So certainly a lot more to learn here.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks as always for your insights. Really appreciate it.

AUBREY: All right. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.