New coronavirus testing shortage looms with flu season

By | July 24, 2020

The challenge of testing for the coronavirus will soon be made worse by the onset of flu season, raising the specter of another crippling shortage of diagnostic tests.

“There isn’t a scenario I know of that that would have an adequate number of tests up by the fall if we continue to increase the cases at the rate that we are,” said Dr. Jonathan Quick, managing director for pandemic response, preparedness, and prevention at the Rockefeller Foundation.

Quest Diagnostics, the largest laboratory company in the United States, warned that labs will not be able to increase the supplies of tests and the chemicals and machines used to generate results to cope with the increased demand once flu season gets underway. The existing time lag in getting COVID-19 test results is expected to worsen once people start getting sick with colds and the seasonal flu.

“There is no way that PCR capacity is going to double in the next three months,” James Davis, an executive vice president at Quest Diagnostics, told the Financial Times.

Davis added that “other solutions need to be found” to detect patients sick with COVID-19.

When the coronavirus pandemic first began in March, a shortage of available diagnostic tests exacerbated the rapid spread of the virus throughout communities and states because only symptomatic people were able to get tested.

Testing capacity in the U.S. slowly caught up to the demand for tests — the number of tests conducted in June was about 46% greater than the total number of tests conducted in May.

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Dr. Jonathan Quick, who previously served as director of essential medicines at the World Health Organization, warned that surges in coronavirus cases in new hot spot states will put strains on the availability of tests as well as the machines and reagent chemicals used to generate test results. The laboratory testing infrastructure may not be able to handle the increased capacity of new tests. The inadequate supply of diagnostic tests will be compounded by the co-occurring surge in seasonal flu cases.

“For the lab-based tests, that equipment has 10s of thousands of parts,” Quick told the Washington Examiner. “Those were never really intended to be running 24/7. And so it’s putting wear and tear on those machines, and also on the reagent system.”

Testing reagents were in short supply in March and April, contributing to the inadequacy of the testing system. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Politico in March that he was worried about the dwindling supply of test kits used to detect COVID-19, which also detect strains of the seasonal flu.

The rates of new daily coronavirus cases in southern and western states are record-breaking. Florida’s Department of Health confirmed 9,785 additional cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, bringing the state’s known total to 379,619. Florida has set several records for new daily cases since June. In the past seven days, coronavirus cases in Texas totaled more than 70,900, bringing the statewide total to about 356,000.

Texas and Florida, as well as President Trump, have all asserted that the U.S. has made testing more available than any other country, yet the speed at which people get their results is too slow. In the District of Columbia, for example, an asymptomatic resident must wait five to eight days to get her results. In a span of five to eight days, the person who was tested yet feels no symptoms of COVID-19 could still be spreading the virus to others in her community before getting the results showing she has tested positive for the disease.

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Diagnostic labs are working to narrow the window in which people have to wait for their test results. LabCorp operates one of the largest clinical laboratory networks in the world, is already struggling to keep up with increased demand for tests at a time when millions of tests are being conducted each week because of the spikes in cases across the south, according to reporting by the Financial Times. However, LabCorp told the Washington Examiner they are doing everything possible to cut time to receive results in half.

“We are able to process 165,000 tests per day with plans to increase capacity further. With this additional capacity, we have reduced the average time to deliver results to three to five days,” a spokesperson from LabCorp told the Washington Examiner. “We continue to be focused on lowering the time it takes for a patient to receive their result, and as additional equipment and supplies become available, we expect the average time to improve.”

During his Tuesday press briefing at the White House, Trump said, “Some areas of our country doing very well others are doing less well, it will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better.”

The pandemic has gotten worse in the past couple of months, with record-high new cases not seen at the start of the pandemic, when public health officials believed would peak in April. The current testing infrastructure in the U.S., Quick said, might not be able to keep up with the imminent increased demand.