The Biden administration could finalize its purchase of a half-billion rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests by the end of next week, according to a White House official, as the president seeks to launch a new nationwide testing push that includes shipping tests to Americans starting in January.
The purchasing agreements for the 500 million test kits are being negotiated on an “accelerated timeline,” officials said, and are expected to be complete by late next week, as the administration also irons out a new website and shipping system to distribute the tests.
But it means widespread deliveries of free tests are still weeks away, as they remain scarce at retail locations amid holiday travel, a surge of the omicron variant and as experts say even millions of new tests are just a start for a country that’s lagged in testing capability since the first months of the pandemic.
“It’s a beginning,” said Dr. Howard Koh, who served as the assistant secretary of health under former president Barack Obama. “They need to be everywhere. Omnipresent.”
“Demand fluctuates. This rise was prompted by the arrival of omicron, of course,” added Koh, now a professor of public health leadership at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “But supply shouldn’t fluctuate. Supply always, in theory, should be able to handle the surge in demand.”
President Joe Biden first announced the plan to purchase 500 million at-home tests last week, a few days before Christmas Eve, and the details are in the works.
They include a website where Americans will be able to order rapid tests to their home with free shipping and a “distribution mechanism” to send the tests that the White House team is “actively working” on, one official told Spectrum News.
The Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services are in charge of negotiating contracts with manufacturers, and the 500 million tests will be a combination of eight different at-home tests authorized by the Food and Drug Administration, the White House press secretary said.
“What happened was the omicron virus spread even more rapidly than anybody thought,” President Biden said last week. “If I had told you four weeks ago that this would spread … by 50, 100 percent, 200 percent, 500 percent, I think you would have looked at me and say, ‘Biden, what are you drinking?’”
Two key details remain unclear: How many free tests each household will be allowed to claim and how many months all half-billion tests will take to manufacture and roll out to homes.
“The appreciation of the need for rapid testing is a critical thing for the country right now,” Dr. Koh said. “We now all understand that serial testing over time can be very, very effective.”
“This is yet another area where we have to learn,” he added. “It just wasn't a priority to subsidize these tests in the same way vaccines have been subsidized all along.”
Major test manufacturers say they’re working to ramp up test-making capacity while also functioning at their maximum.
“We’re sending them out as fast as we can make them. This includes running our U.S. manufacturing facilities 24/7, hiring more workers and investing in automation,” said John Koval, a spokesman for Abbott, in a statement.
“In January, we’ll be making 70 million BinaxNOW rapid tests and can scale significantly further in the months ahead,” he added.
The U.S. government has also already purchased 8.5 million tests from an Australia-based company called Ellume, but the manufacturer hasn’t yet scaled up its U.S. production at a new facility in Frederick, Md.
The factory is set to start producing Ellume tests in January, eventually scaling up to 15 million tests per month, a spokesperson said.
Also in mid-January is when insurance companies are expecting to start reimbursing Americans for rapid at-home tests under federal guidance after a White House announcement in early December.
Some states are already sending out free tests ahead of the federal government’s plan, including Colorado, Connecticut, Ohio, Maryland and Massachusetts.
Coordination between the Biden administration and state and local governments will be critical for test distribution, Dr. Koh said, just as it was for vaccines.
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson urged the president on a call with U.S. governors Monday to “not let federal solutions stand in the way of state solutions” when it comes to testing and rolling out other supplies.
“We’re going to have your back in any way we can,” Biden told the state leaders on the call.