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GOP chairman says nation needs 'millions' more tests to safely reopen

Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderSenate GOP faces retirement brain drain The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - CDC news on gatherings a step toward normality Blunt's retirement deals blow to McConnell inner circle MORE (R-Tenn.) said Thursday that the United States needs “millions more tests” to safely reopen the economy. 

“To test every nursing home, and every prison, everyone in an operating room, and some entire classes and campuses and factories, teams at sports events, and to give those tests more than once, we will need millions more tests than we're producing today,” Alexander said at a hearing examining testing efforts.

“This demand will only grow as the country goes back to work and some 100,000 public schools and more than 5,000 colleges plan to reopen this August.”

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The comments about the need to significantly ramp up testing from a Republican chairman are a contrast with statements from President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden administration still seizing land near border despite plans to stop building wall: report Illinois House passes bill that would mandate Asian-American history lessons in schools Overnight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he MORE, who has repeatedly downplayed the need for more tests and said testing capacity is already strong. 

Alexander acknowledged that the U.S. had “a bumpy start” to testing but said that testing efforts recently have improved significantly.

Still, he said much more is needed and pointed to new technologies that he hopes will be developed through a new “shark tank” contest set up by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to identify new testing technologies. 

Harvard researchers said Thursday that the U.S. needs to conduct 900,000 tests per day, compared with about 250,000 per day currently. 

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said that since the contest launched just more than a week ago, more than 1,000 applications have been initiated, with 79 complete, and 20 having been selected to move to the first phase of scrutiny. 

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“In 27 years at NIH I have honestly never seen anything move this quickly,” he said. 

Democrats, though, faulted the Trump administration for the extremely slow start to ramping up testing, which has drawn widespread criticism from health experts, and said even now the administration needs a clearer plan for increasing testing. 

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyGiffords group unveils gun violence memorial on National Mall Democrats back up Biden bid to return to Iran nuclear deal Biden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  MORE (D-Conn.) noted that the NIH contest to find new testing ideas was only launched eight days ago, when it should have been launched far sooner.

“It shouldn’t be lost on us how far behind we are on testing,” he said, which he called “not an accident” given Trump’s dismissive attitude toward the need for tests. 

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyModerates' 0B infrastructure bill is a tough sell with Democrats Sinema, Romney propose bill to tackle student loan debt Romney, Sinema teaming up on proposal to raise minimum wage MORE (R-Utah) asked Collins why an existing point of care test from Abbott Laboratories that quickly delivers results could not be scaled up, given that it already exists and does not require finding a new technology. 

Collins said there is a “limited number of those machines” and that there are some problems with the accuracy of the test, given that it has about a 15 percent false negative rate. 

He said the NIH is hoping to develop even better tests that can be used at the point of care, meaning results do not need to be shipped off to a lab. Some new tests could also be easier to administer, he said, for example using saliva rather than having to have a swab available to collect a sample.