US gives firm $137M to make COVID test materials before 2024

The Biden administration has inked a nearly $137 million contract with a pharmaceutical company to build a factory in Wisconsin to produce material used in COVID-19 test strips — but the finished product is not scheduled to roll off assembly lines before late 2024.

The Defense Department announced the $136.7 million deal Wednesday with Millipore Sigma, a unit of Germany’s Merck KGaA, to construct the facility at its Sheboygan site over the next three years in order to boost production of nitrocellulose membranes, the paper that displays the test results. 

The deal, worked out in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services, will allow 83.3 million more tests to be produced each month.

Millipore Sigma spokeswoman Rachel Bloom-Baglin told The Post Thursday the years-long timeline was due to the “complex process” of producing the membranes, which she described as “highly-engineered pieces of paper.”

Millipore Sigma is contracted to boost production of nitrocellulose membranes, the paper that displays the test results, which will allow 83.3 million more tests to be produced in the US each month.
POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Millipore Sigma noted in a statement that the membranes are used in rapid tests for ailments other than COVID-19, including HIV, influenza and malaria, “as well as in women’s health, biomarker detection, drug testing, food safety and animal health.”

“We’re grateful to the Biden administration for recognizing this need,” Bloom-Baglin said.

A Merck packaging machine being used for testing purposes in the new pharmaceutical packaging centre at the company's German headquarters.
Nitrocellulose membranes are used in rapid tests for ailments other than COVID-19, including HIV, influenza and malaria, “as well as in women’s health, biomarker detection, drug testing, food safety and animal health.”
picture alliance via Getty Images

The announcement comes as the US attempts to weather a testing crunch amid a surge of COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant — and suggests the administration sees an ongoing need for coronavirus testing over the next few years, with the Defense Department release noting that the Wisconsin facility will support “future needs.”

Funds for the contract were allocated through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan enacted earlier this year. 

The White House coronavirus response team said Wednesday that the administration would not be able to ink contracts to mass-mail 500 million COVID-19 rapid tests until “late next week” despite the dire shortages.

“That means that the first deliveries from manufacturers will start in January. We’ll set up a free and easy system, including a new website, to get these tests out to Americans,” Jeff Zients, the White House response coordinator, said. “We’re actively working to finalize that distribution mechanism, which includes a website where people will be able to order tests for free.”

President Biden said on Monday that he would have “gone harder, quicker” to distribute tests had he known that the Omicron variant was going to cause a spike in coronavirus cases. 

A Millipore Sigma employee wearing full PPE presides over a machine.
President Biden said on Monday that he would have “gone harder, quicker” to distribute tests had he known that the Omicron variant was going to cause a spike in coronavirus cases.
MilliporeSigma

“We went from no over-the-counter tests in January to 46 million in October, 100 million in November and almost 200 million in December. That’s not enough. It’s clearly not enough. If I — we’d known, we would have gone harder, quicker if we could have,” Biden said during a virtual meeting with the National Governors Association.

The president also denied Monday that his administration rejected a proposal in October to mass-distribute rapid tests in preparation for a winter surge in cases.

“We didn’t reject it,” Biden claimed in response to a question from The Post.

With Post wires