The U.S. still isn’t testing enough people for the coronavirus, especially as outbreaks accelerate in many states, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Wednesday.
The U.S. has struggled to roll out rapid and effective diagnostic testing since the beginning of the outbreak, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shipped faulty test kits to state health officials. Once diagnostic companies such as LabCorp and Quest began to manufacture their own tests, the strained supply chain caused further delays.
By the end of April, when the coronavirus had infected more than 1 million people in the U.S., the country had tested just over 6.3 million people, or almost 2% of the population, according to data collected by the Covid Tracking Project. The U.S. is now running more than 500,000 Covid-19 tests a day, but that’s still not enough, Gottlieb said.
“The problem is that even though we have a lot of testing — we have well more than 500,000 tests a day and that’s going to continue to grow — we’re going to be short on tests in places where there’s epidemics,” Gottlieb said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “States like Texas and Florida, they’re falling behind on testing right now because the testing isn’t evenly distributed across the country.”
Gottlieb’s comments come after White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci warned lawmakers Tuesday that if the U.S. outbreak continues on its current trajectory, the country could hit more than 100,000 new cases per day. Gottlieb said Wednesday the U.S. is already at that point, the country’s just not testing enough to detect all the new patients, especially mildly symptomatic people who might not seek testing on their own.
“So it might be hard to diagnose 100,000 infections a day for the foreseeable future, but we’re well more than 100,000 cases a day right now,” he said.
As businesses continue to bring employees back to work and as schools try to reopen in the fall, widespread testing will be a crucial part of the U.S. effort to contain the virus, Gottlieb said. Back in April, Harvard University published a report that said the U.S. would need to ramp up testing capacity to at least 5 million tests a day by early June to reopen the economy.
One strategy for ramping up testing is bringing testing into schools and offices.
“There’s a lot of conversations going on right now about deploying testing in the workplace and also in schools, and I’ve been privy to some of those conversations with my proximity to some of the testing companies,” Gottlieb said, adding that there’s a few reasons why companies haven’t rolled that out on a large scale yet. “Employers don’t want to be the ones getting the results, taking possession of the tests, so there’s been a reluctance to leap right now.”
The way it would work, Gottlieb said, is employers might ask workers to download an app that would provide a symptom checklist, which would depend on employees self-reporting. If they report symptoms, the employers can “make sure that they weren’t in proximity to anyone who had Covid through contact tracing in the workplace.” If deemed necessary, the employer could either provide testing or ship them an at-home sample collection kit.
“What the employers are reluctant to do is bring the testing onsite and actually have to take control of it,” he added. “It’s understandable. They’re not health-care companies.”
Gottlieb’s comments on ramping up testing come after President Donald Trump said at a campaign rally last month that he instructed officials to “slow the testing down, please.” Trump has repeatedly attributed a nationwide increase in confirmed coronavirus cases to increased testing even though health officials and some Republican governors acknowledge that the number of new cases is far outpacing the increase in testing.
Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic-testing start-up Tempus and biotech company Illumina.