February 18, 2021

Biden admin announces $1.6B effort to bolster coronavirus testing and track new variants

Daily Briefing

    The White House on Wednesday announced that the federal government will invest $1.6 billion to boost testing for the novel coronavirus in schools and underserved communities, ramp up domestic manufacturing of testing supplies, and increase genomic sequencing to track new variants of the virus.

    Radio Advisory episode: Biden's plan for fighting Covid-19

    How the White House plans to increase coronavirus testing, variant tracking

    During a White House press briefing on Wednesday, Carole Johnson, the testing coordinator for the White House's Covid-19 response, said the federal government "will invest $1.6 billion in three key areas: supporting testing in schools and underserved populations, increasing genomic sequencing, and manufacturing critical testing supplies." Of those funds, Johnson said the federal government will invest $650 million to increase testing for the novel coronavirus in elementary and middle schools as well as underserved communities.

    HHS in a release issued Wednesday said it will partner with the Department of Defense (DOD) to make the investment to expand testing in "K-8 schools and underserved congregate settings, such as homeless shelters." HHS said it will collaborate with DOD to establish regional coordinating centers to organize the distribution of coronavirus tests and partner with labs "across the country to collect specimens, perform the tests, and report results to the relevant public health agencies for up to 25 million additional tests per month."

    Johnson during the press briefing also said the federal government will invest $815 million to boost domestic manufacturing of coronavirus testing supplies and raw materials, including filter pipette tips, nitrocellulose used in antigen point-of-care tests, and specialized molded plastics needed to house testing reagents.

    In addition, Johnson said the federal government will invest nearly $200 million to expand genomic sequencing to identify and track new variants of the novel coronavirus. According to the database GISAID, public health laboratories, universities, and programs operated by CDC sequenced more than 9,000 coronavirus samples last week, the New York Times reports. Johnson said the new funds are expected to increase CDC's genomic sequencing capacity to 25,000 coronavirus samples a week.

    But getting to that capacity could take some time, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. "When we will get to 25,000 depends on the resources that we have at our fingertips and how quickly we can mobilize our partners. I don't think this is going to be a light switch. I think it's going to be a dial."

    Observers applaud Biden admin's testing moves

    Several observers applauded the Biden administration's testing moves.

    For example, Bronwyn MacInnis, a geneticist at the Broad Institute, called the latest moves "a huge step in the right direction." According to MacInnis, if the United States' number of newly reported coronavirus cases continues to decline, sequencing 25,000 virus samples per week would place the country close to the "minimal gold standard" of sequencing 5% of virus samples, which is "where we need to be to be detecting not only known threats, but emerging threats."

    However, Trevor Bedford, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said he believes CDC will need to make improvements in how it gathers data about coronavirus genomes, which could include linking data on genomes with information from contact tracers. CDC also will need to support the large-scale analysis of genomic data on computers to quickly synthesize the information, he said. 

    "There's too much of a focus on the raw count that we're sequencing, rather than turnaround time," Bedford added.

    Where America's coronavirus epidemic stands

    The Biden administration's latest efforts come as recent data indicates America's coronavirus epidemic has improved since last month's peak in reported cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. The reported rates of each of those metrics remain high, however, and data indicates that new and more transmissible variants of the novel coronavirus are spreading quickly throughout the country.

    According to data compiled by the New York Times, U.S. officials on Wednesday reported about 70,176 new coronavirus cases. As of Thursday morning, officials had reported a total of about 27.8 million cases of the novel coronavirus since the United States' epidemic began.

    According to the Times, the United States' average daily number of newly reported coronavirus cases over the past week was 77,665—down by 43% when compared with the average from two weeks ago, when the United States was in the midst of its worst peak in newly reported cases.

    As of Thursday morning, data from the Times showed that the rates of newly reported coronavirus cases were "staying high" in Colorado, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Vermont, which have each reported a daily average of at least 15 newly reported cases per 100,000 people over the past week. In contrast, rates of newly reported coronavirus cases were "staying low" as of Thursday morning in Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and 12 states. Those states are Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

    All other states and Washington, D.C., had been seeing comparatively higher rates of coronavirus transmission, but the daily average of newly reported coronavirus cases over the past seven days in those areas was "going down" as of Thursday morning, according to the Times' data.

    Experts say the recent drop in newly reported coronavirus cases is encouraging, but they also worry the United States could see another spike in cases, in part because new and more transmissible variants of the virus are spreading throughout the country. According to CDC data, the United States as of Tuesday reported 1,299 total cases of novel coronavirus variants across 42 U.S. states. That total includes:

    • 1,277 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which research suggests is more transmissible and deadly, and possibly less susceptible to Covid-19 vaccines, than earlier variants of the virus;
    • 19 cases of the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa, which research suggests is more transmissible and less susceptible to Covid-19 vaccines than earlier variants of the virus; and
    • Three cases of the P.1 variant first identified in Brazil, which research suggests is more transmissible and less susceptible to vaccines than earlier variants of the virus.

    Meanwhile, U.S. hospitalizations for Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, remained high as of Wednesday, but were down significantly from record highs reported last month. According to data from The Atlantic's COVID Tracking Project, there were 63,398 Americans with Covid-19 hospitalized for treatment on Wednesday, including 13,103 who were receiving care in an ICU and 4,271 who were on a ventilator. Wednesday marked the thirteenth consecutive day that fewer than 90,000 Americans with Covid-19 were hospitalized for treatment.

    Similarly, the United States' rate of newly reported deaths linked to the novel coronavirus has declined over the past two weeks, though it also remains high. According to data from the Times, U.S. officials reported about 2,471 new deaths linked to the virus on Wednesday. As of Thursday morning, officials had reported a total of about 490,326 U.S. deaths linked to the virus since the country's epidemic began.

    (Cohen, Roll Call, 2/17; Lim, Politico, 2/17; Weiland/Zimmer, New York Times, 2/17; Wamsley, NPR, 2/17; White House release, 2/17; CDC variants data, updated 2/16; New York Times, 2/18; "COVID Tracking Project," The Atlantic, accessed 2/18).

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