Overwhelmed laboratories. Week-long delays for results. Despite the nation’s high testing capacity, that’s the reality of COVID-19 testing for many Americans.
Why is the United States falling short on coronavirus testing, even with so many resources? The answer isn’t quite as obvious as it may seem.
An Imperfect System
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic became the world’s top health priority, public and private labs in the U.S relied on automatic testing equipment that locked them into using proprietary chemical kits and tools. It wasn’t necessarily a problem in pre-COVID times, but the pandemic highlighted the flaw in the system.
Only a handful of manufacturers – Cepheid, Hologic Inc, Roche, and Abbott Laboratories – dominate the market for chemical kits and tools. As a result, when coronavirus infections began to spike nationwide, testing laboratories weren’t running anywhere near capacity due to supply-chain delays. Labs couldn’t order the quantities of sample plates, pipettes, and other critical testing parts.
According to Geoffrey Baird, who runs the medical laboratory at the University of Washington, COVID-19 put manufacturers in “an impossible situation” because “they can’t say yes to everyone.”
In Arkansas, for example, congressional leaders warned in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence that their state’s hospitals are only testing at 10% of capacity due to a shortage of supplies from Roche, Abbot, Cepheid, and Hologic.
Experts Believe Millions of Additional Tests Needed Daily
By the end of June, U.S labs ran about 800,000 diagnostic tests a day, but various estimates insist the U.S needs 6-10 million tests per day to effectively tackle the pandemic.
Congress earmarked $11 billion to support a ramp up in testing. Since May, state governments have attempted to do their part by filing plans describing the equipment and supplies they will buy to increase testing efforts.
However, these plans fail to address the root of the supply-chain issue, where a limited number of manufacturers can’t provide everything, to everyone, all at once.
For example, Hologic’s automated Panther machine can process up to 1,000 tests in 24 hours. Demand surged for Panther technology in the spring, with nearly half of all labs listing automated machines as their primary COVID-19 testing system. But Hologic can’t supply enough Panthers for every lab in the country, forcing state leaders and scientists to beg for priority from the company.
According to Hologic CEO Stephen MacMillion, the company “had virtually every governor in the U.S just talk to us directly over the last few weeks, months, pleading their case for why they need more.”
Technology in Testing
The problem becomes even more complex when testing capacity is taken into consideration. At full use, the Panther machines currently in circulation could process about 33 million COVID-19 tests per month… but Hologic only manufactures about 4.8 million tests per month. This leaves labs vying for technology they can’t even use anywhere close to max capacity.
It’s not for lack of trying, though. Hologic says its manufacturing teams are working day and night to hire more people, invest in new equipment, and ultimately increase production.
The bottom line? Automated testing is faster and more convenient, but if the supplies aren’t available, what should be done? Many labs are turning to supplies of the more complex multi-step tests simply to ensure that more tests can be performed each day.