NIH details plan to increase number of daily COVID-19 tests in US to 6 million by December

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) unveiled the details of a plan on Wednesday to increase daily COVID-19 testing quality and availability while addressing testing inequities for underserved communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the novel coronavirus.

First announced in April 2020, the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) program was discussed in a recent article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which said diagnostic testing capacity in the U.S. for June was between 520,000 and 823,000 tests.

“Models that provide robust estimates of the number of tests needed per day vary widely. Some experts estimated that 900,000 tests per day would be needed in May. Others forecasted the need for 5 million tests per day by June, increasing to 20 million tests per day by July,” according to the article.

“Current testing methods to diagnose COVID-19 detect either viral RNA or viral antigens. These tests are highly sensitive and specific when conducted in centralized laboratories with standardized protocols, but require a large amount of lab space, complex equipment, regulatory approvals for the laboratory operations and skilled technicians,” according to a press release from the NIH.

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The NIH said results may take hours to days and testing delays may be caused when samples are transported to a central laboratory.

“During that time someone who is unknowingly carrying the virus may go on to infect others, instead of being quickly isolated,” the article states. “These issues highlight the need for reliable, rapid, point-of-care testing diagnostics.”

The NIH press laid out four components of the RADx program will help meet the goal of providing around 6 million daily tests in the U.S. by December. They include RADx Tech, which aims to “identify, accelerate development, scale up and deploy innovative point-of-care technologies" through fall 2020, as well as RADx Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) , which will establish "community-engaged implementation projects to improve access to testing in underserved and vulnerable populations," according to the NIH.

"Racial and ethnic minorities bear a higher burden of disease and mortality from COVID-19. Blacks, Latinos and American Indians/Alaska Natives are hospitalized and die at disproportionately higher rates compared to other groups," the NIH said. "The goal of RADx-UP is to understand factors that have led to the disproportionate burden of the pandemic on underserved populations, and to support optimal access and uptake of SARS-CoV-2 testing."

During a Wednesday press briefing, President Donald Trump claimed that the United States had performed 50 million COVID-19 tests, stating that it was higher than any other country in the world. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, as of July 23, there had been just over 48 million tests performed.

On July 22, the Associated Press reported U.S. laboratories were buckling under a surge of COVID-19 tests, prompting delays and reducing the effectiveness of the United States’ response to the pandemic.

Testing availability has been a key concern since the early days of the pandemic. The number of tests being performed has increased dramatically since March, with the Associated Press reporting that more than 700,000 people are being tested per day.

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Trump administration officials point out that roughly half of U.S. tests are performed on rapid systems that give results in about 15 minutes or in hospitals, which typically process tests in about 24 hours. But last month, that still left some 9 million tests going through laboratories, which have been plagued by limited chemicals, machines and kits to develop COVID-19 tests.

There is no scientific consensus on the rate of testing needed to control the virus in the U.S., but experts have recommended for months that the U.S. test at least 1 million to 3 million people daily.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.