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Biden's vaccine mandate risks overwhelming US testing capacity

Emma Court, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

“Testing is also a component that probably we don’t talk about enough, or the world doesn’t talk about enough — because it is important, and it’s a way to make sure people have — are protected,” Psaki said. “We know the demand for rapid tests has more than doubled in recent weeks, and so we’re also being responsive to that.”

While the Biden administration may be hoping to bring more testing companies to the table, “the question I have is: How long is that going to take?” said Nuzzo. “We need them now.”

What testing experts fear could happen is already playing out in Alaska, where many of the state’s larger employers like the federal government and the oil, gas and fishing industries, already require either vaccination or testing. Between those policies and a surge in Covid-19 cases, “we’re getting hit doubly right now,” said Coleman Cutchins, the state’s Covid testing lead.

“When you pull up to a drive-through testing site and it’s a three-hour line, people are not waiting in that line,” he said. “And oftentimes it is people who are symptomatic or have had a close contact.”

It’s difficult to predict the potential testing strain because current data do not account for at-home tests sold without a prescription, among others. It’s also unclear what future demand may look like and how much the administration’s investment in rapid testing will expand capacity.

Harvard’s Mina estimates that as much as two or three times as much testing may be going on than officially accounted for. And while the 280 million rapid tests being purchased by the government sounds like a large figure, it translates to “less than one test per person, per year” across the U.S. population, he said.

Ramping up the manufacturing of rapid testing products would help satiate growing demand, Mina said. Part of what the administration’s purchase of those tests could do is signal to manufacturers that there is a longer-term market for virus screenings.

“Having policy in place that smooths these times between potential peaks is really important when those demand signals aren’t there,” said Susan Van Meter, head of the diagnostics division at industry group AdvaMed. “Absent demand signals, there are times where the market will respond and companies will have to contract the manufacturing capacity.”


Rapid testing supply is already strained, with schools unable to get all of what they need, said Mara Aspinall, who leads the K-12 National Testing Action Program, a consortium of testing companies working to help schools perform screenings.

“We are at a precarious balance right now,” she said. “We need to see a significant bump in supply in the very short term.”

Specifics of the Biden plan, like what kinds of screenings can be used and who will pay for the tests, also haven’t yet been disclosed. They will be addressed in rule-making, the official said.

Depending on those details, and because of tight rapid testing supply, employers may end up turning to laboratories to process polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. The American Clinical Laboratory Association, an industry group, said in a statement Thursday that its members “stand ready to support these efforts and ensure the widespread availability of these critical tests.”

Adam Schechter, the chief executive officer of Laboratory Corp of America Holdings, said that the company has had employers reach out asking about services for testing and vaccination assistance since the Biden announcement last week.

Schechter emphasized the role of rapid testing in large-scale screening like the kind in the new Biden administration plan. He said that laboratories have capacity to conduct PCR testing for those who test positive on a rapid test, who have symptoms or have been exposed to COVID-19.

With the exception of medical or religious exemptions, Schechter said “the employers I talk to, many are trying to move toward mandatory vaccinations.”

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