Senators Express Hope and Doubts About New Coronavirus Technology

May 8, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., left, talks with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. (Shawn Thew/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – Top federal lawmakers argued for multi-billion dollar investments in new technology to test for coronavirus and develop vaccines against it during a Senate hearing Thursday.

They also agreed with government health administrators they face an uncertain outcome for their efforts.

“Our country will soon be doing two million diagnostic tests for COVID-19 a week, an impressive number,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican. “But to contain the disease and give confidence to Americans that it is safe to leave our homes, we will need tens of millions of tests, many more than our current technologies can produce.”

He spoke during a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which Alexander chairs. The committee reviewed proposals and prospects for hundreds of research projects to combat coronavirus.

The projects are grouped under what Congress calls the “Shark Tank” after a popular television show that funds some business plans. It began operating last week with a $2.5 billion budget as a joint effort of the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

So far, the project leaders have reviewed 50 applications for research projects while hundreds more are pending.

“Many of these early stage concepts won’t work, or won’t be able to be scaled up quickly, and that’s okay,” Alexander said. “Thomas Edison said he failed 10,000 times before he produced the first incandescent light bulb.”

Neither of the expert witnesses at the Senate hearing would guarantee success or give a timeline for development of successful medicines and vaccines. Both of them wore face masks.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said, “I must tell you, senators, that this is a stretch goal that goes well beyond what most experts think will be possible. I have encountered some stunned expressions when describing these goals and this timetable to knowledgeable individuals.”

A goal of the Shark Tank is to get accurate tests to “point-of-care” health care providers, such as doctor’s offices and community health clinics, Collins said. Testing of minority populations that are suffering the worst from coronavirus are a special emphasis, he said.

So far, the goal has been elusive. The tests use swabs of bodily fluids that are sent to central labs for results.

A promising technology for faster tests that was discussed during the Senate hearing was developed by Illinois-based medical technology company Abbott Laboratories. The 6.6-pound ID NOW machine can deliver test results in minutes.

However, Abbott is seeking National Institutes of Health assistance to improve the ID NOW accuracy rate, which the company acknowledges is not foolproof.

The more than 1,000 expressions of interest for coronavirus projects to the National Institutes of Health use different strategies for collecting test samples, such as nasal swabs, saliva, blood or exhaled breath. Other proposals would use antigen tests to detect protein capsules in the virus.

Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, asked whether widespread testing is necessary when many of the people who test positive show no symptoms of the disease.

“If that’s the case, should we let this run its course through the population and not try and test every person,” he asked.

He mentioned the example of Sweden, which has kept its economy operating with few restrictions and few tests.

Democrats on the committee put part of the blame on the Trump administration for a high U.S. infection and death rate compared with countries like South Korea. The U.S. death toll approached 75,000 this week.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee, blamed President Donald Trump for failing to control the spread of coronavirus. She said the U.S. did not prepare adequately.

“The problem isn’t a lack of innovation, it’s a lack of national leadership and a plan from the White House,” she said.

She mentioned the unemployment rate during the national economic shutdown as an example. About one in five American workers is out of a job this week, compared with a 3.5% unemployment rate at the beginning of 2020.

“No matter how innovative our tests are, we can’t reopen our country safely until they are fast, free and everywhere,” Murray said.

Trump denies a slow response, saying the U.S. is doing far more coronavirus testing than any other country.

White House reports indicate more than a million Americans per week are being tested. The rate is scheduled to increase to 2 million or 2.5 million per week by the middle of June.

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