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COVID-19 Coverage

The White House's plan may make it easier to get at-home COVID tests

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

This year's holiday checklist should probably include an extra item for people traveling or seeing family, and that's getting a COVID test. But in the wake of the omicron variant sweeping across the country, lines are long, and shelves are bare. Yesterday, President Biden announced more measures to make free at-home rapid tests available. NPR's Yuki Noguchi has been looking into this. Yuki, at-home testing, so widely available and nearly free in places such as Europe. Why not here?

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: You know, the short answer is we focused more on vaccine developments and treatments early in the pandemic and less on testing, so the U.S. government was late in authorizing at-home tests to be sold here. Now, recently, more companies got the green light to do so, but those test-makers have to set up factories to make them, and so there's this lag. And, you know, they're starting to come to market, but it's - that's why it's been slow. Another problem, though, is the rapidly shifting demand for these tests. You know, demand spikes during these surges but falls off a cliff when COVID cases are down, and that makes it extremely hard for test-makers to plan. So, for example, Abbott, one of the earliest test-makers authorized to sell here, actually shut down one of its factories early last summer, only then to have to rush back to set it up again once the delta surges came through.

MARTINEZ: Are the Biden administration's moves that were announced yesterday likely to change that?

NOGUCHI: You know, public health advocates have long argued that the federal government should have played a much bigger role in getting these tests made and distributed. You know, as a big player, they have the power to negotiate lower prices on a huge number of tests, and that's exactly what you need. Pia MacDonald is an epidemiologist at RTI International, a nonprofit research group.

PIA MACDONALD: Schools, workplaces, travel - all of that requires very inexpensive, easy-to-distribute, easy-to-do tests. And we're just not there yet.

NOGUCHI: And the U.S. wants to change that, obviously. President Biden said next month a website will start distributing half-a-billion tests to households that request them. And frankly, the sooner the better because time is very much of the essence. Other states have already tried this approach, like New Hampshire and Ohio and Massachusetts, and they run out sometimes within hours. So while a half-a-billion tests sounds like a lot, it's actually less than two per American.

MARTINEZ: Oh, all right, so should we be focusing maybe on other kinds of testing until those at-home tests become more widely available?

NOGUCHI: Yeah. Well, you know, there are these PCR tests. These are the kinds of tests that are processed in labs, and they tend to be more sensitive, more accurate. And there are now mail-in versions or rapid versions of these PCR tests that are coming to market. But these are also, you know, more expensive and can take up to three days to get results. So given how quickly this new omicron variant spreads, you know, that's a huge downside. So essentially, you're looking at, you know, each test having their own pros and cons. And experts say we need to test smarter, as in, you know, we need to use the limited supply of tests we have for the right situation. So if you're sick and you need to confirm a COVID diagnosis to figure out your course of treatment, you need one of those lab tests. But if you're not symptomatic and you just need to know whether it's safe to visit grandma or go to work, ideally you'd have one of these at-home tests that gives you a result in 15 minutes.

MARTINEZ: But we also hear about those long lines at those sites that do the PCR tests.

NOGUCHI: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: I mean, is there a shortage of those as well?

NOGUCHI: Yeah, and that was a real issue last year. You know, shortages of plastic pipette tips and chemical reagents were a problem. But today, the shortage primarily seems to be over manpower. You know, not only do you have a lot of people wanting or needing to get these tests, you know, labs, like hospitals, are having huge staffing problems. And some of these drive-up test sites have closed down, you know, when testing demand was low. So, you know, that is also contributing to some of the bottlenecks here.

MARTINEZ: NPR science correspondent Yuki Noguchi. Thanks a lot.

NOGUCHI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.