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Former FDA Commissioner On Coronavirus Testing

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So we're going to talk more about the testing issue with a person who knows quite a bit about it. Dr. David A. Kessler was the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997, which means he has advised both Republican and Democratic administrations. And he is kind enough to join us now in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thank you for being here - at an appropriate distance, I do want to mention. OK. So let's get the disclosures out up front. You have just been asked by former Vice President Joe Biden to advise him on the coronavirus situation. But, as I said, you've served in both Republican and Democratic administrations. And as you've also said, this is not a partisan issue.

But you posted an op-ed in New York Times titled "How To Fix The Coronavirus Testing Mess In Seven Days." As briefly as you can, could you just pick up on Richard's point? Why is there a mess? What's been the breakdown so far?

DAVID A KESSLER: Without testing, we're flying blind. Without - we don't have an antiviral to slow the epidemic. We don't have a vaccine. All we have is to take people who have the virus and isolate them, to quarantine them. But that entire system is - if you look at the CDC guidance, it says to isolate, to quarantine confirmed cases. But how can you know whether someone is a confirmed case without a test?

MARTIN: So now to your suggestions about what should happen. Now, you said - the title of the piece is how to fix this in seven days. What are your specific suggestions?

KESSLER: So understand how testing occurs. You know, it's really pretty basic - a throat swab, a nose - a nasal swab. But it has to be done with somebody in protective gear that has to - that sample has to be put in a biohazard box. That box has to be in a special shipping container. And that has to go to a lab that can run that test. And the result gets back. It's this very simple managerial question.

We now have labs throughout the country that can run about 26,000 samples a day. And that's increased substantially. But we've got to be able to get people access. I mean, I spent hours yesterday trying to get one patient tested. And if I have - I mean, I have trouble doing it, you could imagine the average person. It's a basic managerial problem.

I think the administration gets this. They said tomorrow they will at 5 p.m. announce where the locations are. But we've got to be able to get a testing system up and running that people who need it can get it so we can say to them, you have to be isolated. You have to be quarantined.

MARTIN: So the White House has now, as you just mentioned, briefed the public on new - a new public and private partnership that would screen people who need to be tested online and then direct them to a location where they could get the test. The administration says additional details will be provided tomorrow afternoon. But from what we know so far, is this the right move?

KESSLER: If - I watched them say that, and I applaud it. Now they have to deliver. It would have been great - you know, I don't want to look back. I just want to get this up and running. This can be up and running throughout the country in a matter of days if there's the right focus. We'll see. Can they deliver? I don't know. I - you know, there's nothing better than I wish, you know, that they succeed.

MARTIN: So the president has said that only people who are symptomatic should be tested. He's obviously not a, you know, medical expert. But is that the correct advice so far from people who only heard that?

KESSLER: I spoke to public health officials in two different states yesterday, and I got different answers to that very basic question. If you're a confirmed case, and I have been in contact with you, should I get tested? That was the question I asked.

MARTIN: Just to be clear, I'm not. But - just to be clear.

KESSLER: Sure.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. But yeah.

KESSLER: I mean, and this - the CDC has to give very clear advice. People who come in contact with somebody who's a confirmed case, should they just self-quarantine, or should they be tested? There are - the advice is conflicted right now.

MARTIN: So the messaging is still too confused. OK. That - well, keep us posted.

That was Dr. David A. Kessler. He is a medical doctor. He's teaching at the University of California San Francisco. He's a professor there. And he was the FDA's commissioner from 1990 to 1997.

Dr. Kessler, thank you so much for coming in. And please do keep us informed about your best guidance here.

KESSLER: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF PDP'S "NEVER SLEEP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.