White House rejected plan to boost holiday COVID testing: report

The Biden administration passed on an October proposal that sought to avert this year’s holiday COVID testing crunch by manufacturing more than 700 million tests each month, according to a new report.

Vanity Fair reported that a group of COVID-19 testing experts from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Rockefeller Foundation, the COVID Collaborative and several other organizations pitched a 10-page plan to White House officials on Oct. 22.

It reportedly called for the production of roughly 732 million tests per month as part of what the document described as a “Testing Surge To Prevent [a] Holiday COVID surge.” The plan also included a provision for “Every American Household to Receive Free Rapid Tests for the Holidays/New Year.” 

To reach the lofty goal, according to Vanity Fair, the experts proposed coordinating a rollout with Amazon, pharmacies, state health departments and local community centers. They also encouraged the administration to implement a similar campaign to the National Institutes of Health’s “Say Yes! Covid Test” initiative to reduce the spread ahead of the holiday season. 

The plan was put together by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Rockefeller Foundation, the COVID Collaborative and several other organizations.

However, three days after the meeting, White House officials informed the experts that the administration would not be moving forward with the plan, with one official telling the magazine: “We did not have capacity to manufacture over-the-counter tests at that scale.”

Instead, the White House would announce a plan focusing on pushing rapid at-home tests through the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory approval process. So far, the FDA has approved 11 COVID-19 tests for over-the-counter distribution.

Now, Christmas is here and the US is dealing with exactly what the experts feared would happen: a massive surge in cases due to the Omicron variant, and a shortage of readily available tests — causing residents of cities like New York to wait in hours-long lines to get their noses swabbed.

Dr. Michael Mina, one of the experts who attended the October meeting, told Vanity Fair that the federal government “didn’t support the notion of testing as a proper mitigation tool.” He added that it was “undeniable” that the Biden administration deprioritized COVID testing in favor of its vaccination campaign.

Boxes of BinaxNow home COVID-19 tests made by Abbott
The FDA has approved 11 COVID-19 tests for over-the-counter distribution so far.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

“We have to admit at every level of government that vaccines are not the end of this,” Mina said.

Dr. Steven Phillips, vice president of science and strategy for the COVID Collaborative, accused the administration of “playing small ball.” 

“When it comes to rapid testing, they’re bunting the players along,” he said. 

In an interview with ABC News this week, Biden conceded his administration’s rollout of at-home COVID-19 testing has not “been good enough” and admitted he wished he “had thought about ordering” the tests “two months ago.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the administration’s testing efforts, telling reporters Thursday that over the summer “there was not a demand for testing in this country.”

“Delta obviously increased the demand. We also had to take steps as a federal government to build up the market because the market wasn’t there to meet if the demand rose,” she claimed. “What the president did with the Defense Production Act is to do exactly that, investing $3 billion several months ago to make sure we were building up the market, to make sure we had the capacity.”

On Tuesday, Biden announced the administration would make 500 million rapid at-home COVID tests available for direct order by Americans beginning early next month. However, many experts say that number is not enough.

In total, the White House has promised close to 1 billion free tests since early September, though it is unclear how many of that amount have actually been ordered and distributed.