The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will be sending updated test kits to state and local laboratories across the nation, a top official said on Friday, in a move meant to expand testing capacity ahead of the predicted community spread of the new coronavirus.
The CDC produced a test kit weeks ago, but labs uncovered an issue with the third of three steps, preventing most labs from testing locally for COVID-19, which is caused by the new illness.
Experts revised the test, removing the faulty third step, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on a phone call on Friday. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar informed a congressional committee of the fix on Thursday.
The kit, which now uses two reagents, will work properly, Messonnier said.
Washington state officials said late Thursday that they already validated the reconfigured kit. They’ll start testing for the new virus locally this week. Like most states, officials have had to package samples to send to the CDC to test in Atlanta. Local testing will cut days off the process.
“The goal is if it’s in here in the morning we will have a result by 5 o’clock that afternoon,” state health epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist told reporters at a press conference. “It’s a lot quicker.”
Washington is one of the first states to use the reconfigured kits, Lindquist said.
Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), which represents state and local labs, told The Epoch Times that the goal is to get testing in all 50 states within a week. All labs will eventually get the updated kits, he said.
Some experts have expressed concern about the relatively low number of people being tested in the United States, compared to some countries such as South Korea. Messonnier told reporters that the low number of cases in the United States, at 62 as of Friday, was because of travel restrictions put into place by the U.S. government, not because of the faulty testing kits.
“The epidemiological situation in China and other countries is really different than in the U.S. The U.S. acted incredibly quickly, before most other countries,” she said.
“We aggressively controlled our borders, and therefore slowed the entrance of the virus in the U.S.”
Only 459 people have been tested, in addition to the hundreds who were tested after being evacuated from the city of Wuhan in China or the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan. The State Department chartered flights to evacuate over 800 people across several weeks starting in late January.
The virus isn’t currently spreading in the United States, according to the CDC. Most of the infected, or 44 of 62, are in isolation on military bases after landing on the chartered flights. The others are either quarantined at hospitals or at home after having recovered from the disease. Cases have been confirmed in California, Washington state, Arizona, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Massachusetts.
No one has died from COVID-19 in the United States.
Officials do plan to expand testing for the virus. The initial sites are in six major cities, including San Francisco, New York City, and Honolulu. Samples collected through the flu surveillance network will be tested for COVID-19 if the samples test negative for the flu.
Testing is slated to start through the network by next week, Messonnier said. “We hope to rapidly move from six to 50 states,” she said.
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, told lawmakers on Thursday that he hoped a “national coronavirus surveillance system” would be running in the next eight or 12 weeks.
The national system would enable officials to see “when and if we’re getting community [spread]” without waiting until an individual is hospitalized and on a ventilator,” Redfield said, referring to a recently confirmed case in California that might be the first case of community spread in the country.
“We don’t know what we’re going to find when we start this,” he added, “but we’re very anxious to … get that operational as soon as possible.”