U.S. coronavirus response still crippled by lack of testing, Dr. Scott Gottlieb says

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Scott Gottlieb, former Commissioner of the FDA

Adam Jeffery | CNBC

As coronavirus outbreaks continue to grow across a number of states, the U.S. response is still hampered by a lack of testing and an inability to direct resources to so-called hot spots, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Monday.

Nationally, the U.S. has ramped up testing from an average of just over 174,000 diagnostic tests per day through April to an average of 666,081 tests per day so far in July, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project. While testing has risen nationally, Gottlieb said demand for more tests has outpaced supply in hard-hit states like Florida and Texas.

“We don’t have a national plan. We don’t have a national strategy. We don’t have a national pool of resources and swing capacity that we can move around when we have these epidemics, and so states start to get pressed very quickly,” he said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “It’s a bigger problem than we thought it would be at this point.”

The testing capacity in states like Texas and Arizona is reportedly strained under the spike in demand that’s come as parts of those states experience severe outbreaks. The overall supply chain for diagnostic tests, which includes sample-collection swabs, chemical reagents and other materials, has been strained since the start of the pandemic.

While the supply chain has been bolstered since March through public investment, test manufacturers like LabCorp and Quest have reported a backlog in recent weeks. LabCorp said it delivers test results, on average, within one to two days from specimen pick-up, but spokeswoman Kelly Smith Aceituno told CNBC last week “results on average may take 1-2 days longer” due to the recent surge in parts of the U.S.

“It’s a bigger problem than we thought it would be at this point,” Gottlieb said Monday. “There’s delays of three to five days when you talk to doctors on the ground. There’s long lines, long waits to get testing and so we really still don’t have a national system where you can distribute these products nationally.”

The FDA granted emergency use authorization to Becton Dickinson for a Covid-19 antigen point-of-care test that can produce results within 15 minutes, the company said on Monday. The company said the test can be processed on the company’s existing platform, which is already installed in about 25,000 health facilities across the country. Such tests will be crucial to ramping up testing, especially in hard-hit states with expanding outbreaks and overwhelmed health systems, Gottlieb said.

“In terms of when we’re going to have more supply in the market, we’re going to see some major approvals of new products, I think, pretty soon that are going to be more point-of-care diagnostics,” Gottlieb said ahead of the Becton Dickinson announcement. “That’s going to provide a lot of capacity into the market, new systems that have control over their own supply chain end-to-end, so they’re going to bring a tremendous amount of new capacity into the market.”

Rapid and widespread testing is crucial to detecting new coronavirus cases and enabling local health officials to quickly identify the source of infection and others who might have been exposed. Since the beginning of the outbreak, public health officials and epidemiologists have called for the U.S. to invest significantly in test manufacturing and ramping up the testing infrastructure.

President Donald Trump, however, has previously said that “anybody who wants a test gets a test.” And last month at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Trump attributed the growing outbreaks across the country to increased testing, adding that he told officials to “slow the testing down, please.” 

Public health specialists and epidemiologists have said the data does not indicate the rise in cases is due to testing, because the number of new cases is outpacing the number of new tests run. With constrained testing in areas with the largest outbreaks, Gottlieb said Monday the U.S. needs to invest more in testing and better target the country’s testing.

“I’m still surprised that when you have an epidemic in a state, you don’t have the ability to marshal resources and focus them into that state,” he said. “Clearly that’s not happening. Clearly we don’t have that still.”

— Graphics by CNBC’s Nate Rattner 

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