- The US is struggling to ramp up testing for the new coronavirus, which has killed more than 4,600 people and infected 126,000.
- So far, the US has not tested as widely as other countries. As of March 8, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported only 1,707 patients had been tested.
- Now the US public-health system could face another challenge: running low on the materials needed to perform the tests.
- The CEO of the Seattle-based Providence St. Joseph Health System told Business Insider that the labs it works with didn’t have the materials needed to run the tests.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Since the novel coronavirus first struck the US, the country has seen 38 coronavirus-related deaths, and the number of cases has jumped above 1,300.
Public-health officials are struggling to get a sense of just how widespread the coronavirus outbreak is on US soil, in part because of a lack of tests. As of March 8, the US had the lowest rate of coronavirus testing per capita of any developed country, in part because of an error in the test kits first sent out by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
But as the US is working to ramp up its testing, it now faces shortages of the chemicals that are critical in the process of running the tests.
CDC Director Robert Redfield told Politico Tuesday that he was not sure if labs were stocked with enough of the materials used to extract the genetic material of the viruses present in a patient’s sample.
“I’m confident of the actual test that we have, but as people begin to operationalize the test, they realise there’s other things they need to do the test,” Redfield told Politico.
A limited amount of raw materials
Before a laboratory can conduct a coronavirus test, it first needs to extract RNA from the virus samples taken from patients.
This extraction requires a separate kit, and without that kit, researchers can’t perform a coronavirus test.
Qiagen, a Netherlands-based company that makes the RNA-extracting kits, told Politico it supplies are back-ordered.
“This is a period of extraordinary demand for coronavirus testing workflows, some of which include QIAGEN products,” a spokesman for Qiagen told Business Insider in an emailed statement Wednesday. “And yes it is true, that this demand is challenging our capacity to supply certain RNA extraction kits used for SARS-CoV-2 related LDTs.”
The company is ramping up production at its Barcelona and Hilden, Germany manufacturing sites, adding staff, and looking into increasing how much manufacturing can be done at the company’s Germantown, Maryland site.
Earlier this month, Qiagen agreed to be acquired by the healthcare equipment firm Thermo Fisher in a $US10.1 billion deal.
Redfield said he didn’t know how the CDC would handle a scarcity of RNA-extracting kits. He added that he was hopeful “there will be mechanisms between multiple manufacturers to correct” it.
Already, some of the labs that the Providence St. Joseph Health System is working with don’t have the materials needed to run the tests, CEO Rod Hochman told Business Insider on Wednesday. Providence, which runs 51 hospitals across seven West Coast states, is headquartered just outside Seattle, an area that has been hit hard by the new coronavirus.
“It’s still a nagging issue that’s out there that’s really been inhibiting what they’re doing,” Hochman said. Overall, he said, testing is ramping up slowly as more commercial labs start offering the test.
That’s in part because the materials used in RNA-extracting kits, called reagents, are in demand in other countries. Places like Italy, South Korea, and China, where testing is being done more widely, “have used a lot of them,” Hochman said. “They’re way ahead of us on testing,” he added.
The US has the lowest testing per capita among developed countries
As of Sunday, 1,707 Americans had been tested for the novel coronavirus, according to the CDC. South Korea, by contrast, has tested more than 189,000 people. The US and South Korea announced their first coronavirus cases on the same day.
The US testing shortage is partly because the CDC tests first distributed to state labs turned out to be flawed. More than half of the labs received inconclusive results. A problem with one ingredient in the test kits resulted in further delays.
Compared with other countries affected by the coronavirus, the US has done the fewest COVID-19 tests per capita.
South Korea’s testing total so far, when broken down into number of tests performed per million citizens, seems to be about 700 times higher than the US’s.
It’s likely that the US has done more tests than the CDC’s reported figure shows, since the agency isn’t tallying tests performed at state and private labs in the past week.
US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn said on Friday that the US had conducted 5,861 coronavirus tests, CNN reported. That number did not include tests conducted at private and commercial labs, Hahn added.
But even that higher number of tests per capita would still put the US behind the other seven countries listed above, with 18 tests per million people.
This article was initially published March 11 and has been updated.
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