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Man In Charge Of Coronavirus Testing In The U.S. On Why There Are Still Shortages

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

They are back - cars queued up as far as the eye can see, people queued up waiting for hours, reports of shortages of key supplies like swabs and pipettes, reports of long waits for results. I'm talking about horror story headlines of coronavirus testing - headlines we hoped we had put behind us this past spring and summer. And to be sure, many more tests are available now than at the beginning of the pandemic. But the testing infrastructure in this country still appears to fall far short of what is needed. We're going to talk about this now with the man in charge of testing in the United States, Admiral Brett Giroir.

Welcome, Adm. Giroir.

BRETT GIROIR: Thank you for having me on.

KELLY: Why does demand still outpace supply eight months into this pandemic?

GIROIR: Demand does not outpace supply. In fact, we're doing over 1.5 million tests per day.

KELLY: I'll point to those lines I just described.

GIROIR: OK. So when you have people who believe they need to be tested - millions of people so they can go on vacation, holiday - the system does not support that. We are absolutely able to support the testing of those who are symptomatic to all the contacts they have, to test asymptomatic individuals across the country in an unprecedented way. We have all of that. But the lines you're seeing primarily now are the result of individuals who mistakingly (ph) believe that getting a test today or tomorrow is going to make them safe over the holidays for travel. And that's just not true.

KELLY: You think this is a Thanksgiving bottleneck.

GIROIR: Oh, I think it really is a Thanksgiving bottleneck. We have almost double the supply of tests than we actually will probably do this month as we did last month. We'll have over 70 million point-of-care tests this month, far more than twice the amount of testing that was done last month. We've already distributed 63 million of the Binax cards to individuals.

So look. We are not in a situation and we are not going to be in a situation soon where everybody who wants a test on every day can get it. But we have significant, robust supplies. We are testing all nursing home staff twice a week in hot counties; in not hot counties, once a week. We're testing 250,000 students at Wisconsin, surging in Utah. We have enough tests to do what we need to do with the testing side.

What I want the American people to really understand, though, as you heard today - that we are in a dangerous and critical part of the outbreak. The numbers of cases were over 1.1 million in this last week. Our hospital admissions have gone up almost a hundred percent in the last month. That is not going to be solved by people getting tested who don't need to be tested. It's going to be solved by mask-wearing. It's going to be solved by limiting exposure to indoor crowded areas, physical distancing, hand hygiene and, unfortunately, closing of some establishments or limiting the population of indoor establishments like restaurants and bars.

KELLY: And you are preaching a message that absolutely has been underscored, supported and that public health officials would 100% agree with - wear a mask. Socially distance. Do all of those things. But I have been interviewing those same public health officials for months and months and months now. They argue that, you know, to put this pandemic behind us, to keep the country and the economy safely reopened, you need to be doing tens of millions of tests every day. What is preventing us from doing that?

GIROIR: That is a physical impossibility. We do not...

KELLY: Why?

GIROIR: Why - is that - sort of an existential question, right? You know, why can't people fly? Why can't these things happen? I mean, we have invested every single dollar that's possible into increasing the testing infrastructure. Remember, we only had a few thousand tests we could do a week. Now we're doing over 10 million per week. We have point-of-care tests, but we do not have the physical capability to actually have tens of millions of tests.

The closest one is Binax, right? That's the closest one. That's $5 a test. It's very easy to administer. We are ramping from 30 to 35 to 50 million per month, but that's per month. There are not a world supply of the certain types of material that goes into that. We are doubling, tripling the swabs that are being made. It's - it is no lack of will or money or infrastructure. But we're going from a standing start to where we are today, which is an unprecedented rise. I would love for us to have hundreds of millions of tests per month. There has been no lack of investment, effort, science, coordination. It's just we're not there yet as a country.

KELLY: So you're saying this is not a shortage of will. This is not a shortage of money. There are physical just manufacturing impediments to this.

GIROIR: There are physical manufacturing impediments that can't be fixed overnight. A lot of them could be fixed over weeks. We went from being able to make a few million swabs a month to a hundred million or so per month. We had no point-of-care tests - none...

KELLY: Yeah.

GIROIR: ...Until having some. And then this rapid point-of-care test is here in the quantities of 35 or 40 million. But I do want to say, look. There - but there is a possibility that in the future, there's home testing for everyone and everyone can test every day. There's going to be...

KELLY: I wanted to ask you about that because that's a piece of news this week. The FDA just authorized the first test people can use themselves at home and get results right away, but it's 50 bucks a pop, and the supply is really limited.

GIROIR: It's very limited.

KELLY: Do you have any idea when that will be more widely available and more affordable?

GIROIR: That particular technology is probably not going to be widely available, nor is it going to be more affordable because it's in a form that is not going to be affordable. It's expensive to make it. So the kinds of tests that we're talking about is like the Binax test, the $5 card-based test that we purchased 150 million of. It's first in class. There will be others that are similar to it coming down from other companies where there's independent supply chain like through Europe. So we do expect that. But we are not within months of being able to have hundreds of millions of these per month. So...

KELLY: And I guess - forgive me for interrupting you.

GIROIR: No, go ahead. Please.

KELLY: We just have a minute or so left. And I just want to get to this - the basic question that I can't get off my mind. This is a country that sent people to the moon decades ago. This is a country that in the same eight months, two pharmaceutical companies have come up with a vaccine that they say is 95% effective. Why can't we get testing out there in the supplies that would allow everybody who wants a test to get a test?

GIROIR: So we've been investing in the manufacturing of these vaccines for about 20 years to get us to the point in time that you have an eight-month start...

KELLY: Right.

GIROIR: ...And can get something going. There was not a single swab in the stockpile. There was no manufacturing chain. There was no industrial base. There was not a single diagnostic in the stockpile, no manufacturing chain, no industrial base. So this is truly a standing start. This is the equivalent...

KELLY: I'm sorry to cut you off.

GIROIR: Yeah, go ahead.

KELLY: I know you're running fast, and we wish you luck.

GIROIR: Thank you.

KELLY: Adm. Giroir, thank you.

GIROIR: OK, OK. Bye-bye.

KELLY: That is Brett Giroir, the testing czar for the White House coronavirus task force. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.