White House awards $230M for over-the-counter, rapid COVID-19 tests

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The Biden administration is funding the mass production of a rapid, over-the-counter COVID-19 test, White House officials announced Monday.

Andy Slavitt, White House COVID-19 adviser, said the administration will provide nearly $232 million to an Australian company called Ellume, which received authorization for the test in December.

The company was part of the National Institutes of Health’s RADx initiative to spur test development, and received $30 million from the program.

“Thanks to this contract, they’ll be able to scale their production to manufacture more than 19 million test kits per month by the end of this year,” Slavitt told reporters.

Still, it will take time to increase manufacturing.

As part of the agreement, the U.S. will fund an American manufacturing facility. The company will be able to ship 100,000 kits a month from the Australian facility from February to July, until the expected date the U.S. facility is built.

At full capacity, the U.S facility will be able to produce up to 19 million tests per month. The new contract will guarantee the U.S. 8.5 million kits, but not until the end of the year. Each kit contains one test.

In December, Ellume projected to deliver 20 million tests to the U.S. in the first half of 2021. A company spokeswoman said that number includes the contract with the U.S. government, but the exact timing is hard to pin down. 

Manufacturing capacity is ramping up in Australia, but the company said delays are “inevitable.”

“We’re pleased with our own production capacities and have successfully expanded our manufacturing to be able to produce 100,000 tests per day. However, the reality is that we, like other companies, are limited by our ability to source materials. We continue to work to find alternatives and additional supplies, but some level of delay is inevitable,” the spokeswoman said.

The move is a significant step forward in expanding the reach of rapid, at-home coronavirus tests, something experts have been advocating for months.

The test is 95 percent effective and gives results in about 15 minutes. It can be used to test symptomatic people as well as those without symptoms, in order to help with surveillance.

The test uses a nasal swab that isn’t as deep as the traditional nasopharyngeal test. People swab their nose and then use a “Bluetooth connected analyzer” that sends the results to their smartphone.

But cost could be a barrier to widespread use. The test kits cost $30 each, and it’s not clear if they will be covered by insurance. The appeal of a rapid, at-home test is that it can be used multiple times a week to help people to return to work and school.

Slavitt said he expects the cost to decrease as more units are produced. He said affordability should be something federal, state and local officials factor into their thinking and planning about access to COVID-19 tests.

“I couldn’t agree more that things that are not low cost and accessible don’t do as all the good we need,” Slavitt said. “Life doesn’t change until we create more ubiquitous capability” for testing and treatment.

Updated at 4:40 p.m.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 testing
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