The Biden administration had rejected a proposal to ramp up rapid testing ahead of an anticipated holiday-season surge in COVID-19 cases, according to an explosive Vanity Fair report.
Vanity Fair obtained a 10-page plan from COVID-19-testing experts, hailed from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Rockefeller Foundation, the COVID Collaborative, and several other organizations. The group, during a zoom call with White House officials on Oct. 22, pitched the plan calling for a "Testing Surge to Prevent Holiday COVID Surge," a blueprint to avoid the very exact dilemma ensuing at this moment — endless lines of desperate Americans across the country clamoring for tests.
Equivalent to what other countries are implementing where citizens have easy access to free rapid tests, the plan outlined steps that called for an estimated 732 million at-home COVID-19 antigen tests to be produced and distributed per month. The plan also included a provision for "Every American Household to Receive Free Rapid Tests for the Holidays/New Year."
The experts proposed a coordinated rollout with big companies, including Amazon, pharmacies, state health departments, and local community centers, to send the antigen testing to American citizens ahead of the holiday season. It would have enabled the U.S. to put rapid at-home COVID testing into Americans' hands to allow them to screen for themselves in real-time whether one had the virus or not, thus reducing transmission.
However, three days later, after sharing the "big, bold idea" with White House officials, the testing experts were told their plan "was dead," receiving their answer through "backchannel organization." Officials opted to move with an initiative that focused on pushing rapid at-home tests through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory approval process. So far, the FDA has authorized only 13 rapid antigen tests for over-the-counter distribution and has also authorized three at-home molecular tests.
An official who attended the meeting defended the WH decision to punt the proposal, claiming that despite sharing the "same goal," the plan "couldn't be implemented at that time."
"We did not have capacity to manufacture over-the-counter tests at that scale," the official told Vanity Fair.
Three experts who interacted with the White House suspected the White House shot down their plan in the belief Americans would opt to "test their way through the pandemic and skip vaccinations."
"It's undeniable that [the administration] took a vaccine-only approach," said Dr. Michael Mina, a vocal advocate for rapid testing who attended the October White House meeting told the magazine. The government "didn't support the notion of testing as a proper mitigation too."
Mina slammed the FDA for opposing rapid testing while being "completely fine with PCR tests giving back results seven days later."
"Ultra-accurate tests that take a long time to process have a clinical benefit for treating patients, but they are of no help in deciding if you should go to work or get on a plane that day. If our goal is defined as public health, every test run last year was practically useless," Mina added.
Skeptics of the rapid test cited the Trump administration's dependence on PCR testing in order to avoid canceling events or making them virtual. They recalled former President Trump's Rose Garden event dubbed by liberal media as a "superspreader event" in Sept 2020 as an example that rapid testing isn't as accurate as projected.
But Mina argued that Trump's reliance on daily rapid tests showed only one incident that occurred during the six months, showing how testing was a proper beneficial tool for mitigation.
"Lost in the uproar was the fact that "the Trump administration tested every day before work and managed to go a full six months without having outbreaks," Mina noted. "No reporter ever writes about the outbreak that doesn't happen. It's not interesting."
Last week, during an interview with ABC News, 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." Ironically, according to the report, his own officials flatly rejected the plans he now wished he could execute two months ago.
Speaking to the nation's governors Monday, Biden confessed that his administration should have done more to speed up the availability of rapid testing due to the Omicron storm that has quickly overwhelmed existing testing capacity.
"It's not enough. It's clearly not enough," Biden said. "If we had known, we'd have gone harder and quicker if we could have."
The president's recognition of the testing shortfalls comes as he laid out his new plan on accelerating testing, pledging 500 million kits due to roll out at least next month, way too late to ease disruptions to winter holiday plans. Biden's new plan for rapid testing and the website where one can order the rapid test to be delivered to their home won't occur until next month, the White House has said.
It also wasn't the first time the Biden White House rejected plans to transform the nation's testing infrastructure. In January, Mina and Dr. Steven Phillips of the COVID Collaborative sent the new administration a 23-page document outlining a national rapid-testing strategy that they argued would enable the country to reopen safely even before the vaccine rollout was complete.
It made a case for rapid testing as the most powerful tool to reduce transmission and case counts quickly. But the Biden administration, Phillips said, lacked "the imagination to have an Operation Warp Speed-level program for testing."
White House reporters confronted Biden about a Vanity Fair piece as he was leaving the White House en route to Rehoboth Beach. Biden denied the report but didn't elaborate further.
"We didn't reject it," Biden said.