Guest Editorials, Opinion

Attention, Biden: 500M free COVID tests aren’t enough

When Joe Biden took over as president, millions of Americans were relieved to finally have a leader who could be counted on to consistently shepherd the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in a coherent and fact-driven way. But Biden’s record has been far from spotless.

Yes, any president was going to struggle with a political movement that bizarrely conflates getting vaccinated against a deadly disease with surrendering personal freedom, and whose leaders include the governors of the second- and third-most populous states. Yes, the arrival of the delta and omicron variants are beyond the White House’s control.

But it was only this week that Biden grasped what many nations figured out months ago: providing people with free or cheap COVID-19 home tests is crucial to helping them to gauge and manage the risk they pose to family members and co-workers and to keeping businesses and schools open. Incredibly, the Food and Drug Administration dragged its feet for more than a year on quick, inexpensive tests on the grounds that they’re not as accurate as the PCR tests given at medical facilities. But the advantages of a cheap, generally accurate test that one can self-administer were plain long ago to those other than the FDA’s dangerously cautious bureaucrats — who inexplicably treat such simple tests as akin to complex medical devices, Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina notes.

The FDA was similarly slow to recommend booster shots — even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released three studies in August showing that the effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines waned over time.

But while the Biden administration’s commitment to providing 500 million free home tests in coming weeks sounds impressive, it isn’t at all. The omicron variant of the virus spreads far more quickly than previous versions, and “breakthough infections” among the fully vaccinated are sadly much more common than assumed this spring. Based on what’s happened in other nations, Eric Topol, director of Scripps Research Translational Institute, believes the United States could soon see more than 1 million new COVID-19 infections a day. Remember, the 2020 Census reported there are 331 million Americans. One-and-one-half free tests per American is not nearly enough. “A start (finally),” Topol tweeted, “but billions are needed to help prevent spread.”

That’s true even if omicron continues to pose lower health risks than previous variants. There are still millions of Americans with weak immune systems who need protection from the virus. The unvaccinated need protection from themselves.

If private manufacturers facing soaring demand for home tests are unable to drastically ramp up supplies, the White House should invoke the Defense Production Act, which allows the president to compel production of goods to respond to emergencies. Biden and predecessor Donald Trump have already invoked the 1950 law to respond to other aspects of the pandemic. It’s time to do so again.

This editorial first appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune on Thursday. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.