Donald Trump’s flagship vaccine programme Operation Warp Speed should be overhauled to focus on coronavirus testing when Joe Biden enters the White House, according to a member of the president-elect’s pandemic task force.
Céline Gounder, a member of Mr Biden’s advisory group, said Operation Warp Speed should spend more on improving the quality of testing, in what would amount to a shift in direction for the sprawling federally-funded effort that has paid billions of dollars to drug companies to develop vaccines.
“We need to be funding not just vaccines. I think another major area we need to be looking at is diagnostics,” Dr Gounder, an infectious diseases expert, said in an interview with the Financial Times.
Coronavirus testing is hampered by the fact that accurate tests do not produce instant results, while rapid diagnostics are less reliable. Public health experts say the holy grail is a test that is both fast and precise.
A greater focus on diagnostics would help identify asymptomatic carriers who may be spreading the illness unwittingly, Dr Gounder said. An estimated 40 per cent of all people infected with Covid-19 do not have symptoms, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr Gounder said experts believe younger adults are more likely to be these silent spreaders. “You can’t possibly curb that without testing,” she added.
Mr Biden is planning a massive increase in coronavirus testing capacity to tackle the pandemic. Dr Gounder said the overhaul would include increasing support to state and local public health departments and improving data collection to understand the scale of the outbreak.
“We’re really going to be focused on how we scale testing, especially testing asymptomatic people, and how we scale up contact tracing,” Dr Gounder said. “The most important thing is to have data.”
Her comments come after another member of the advisory board said it was worth considering a four to six week lockdown of the entire country. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told Yahoo! Finance that the government could pay workers and small business owners to stay at home to stop the spread of the virus.
Testing has been one of the most politically contentious parts of the US response to coronavirus, with Mr Trump pushing officials to reduce the numbers of tests being done in an attempt to bring down the official case count.
Operation Warp Speed has a remit to fund vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics, but has so far given the vast majority of its funding to Covid-19 vaccines. The National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority have invested over $475m in the manufacturing expansion for new testing technologies.
Mr Biden’s task force is paying “very close attention” to the particular impact of the virus on communities of colour and is considering ways to help them with testing and tracing, including making tests free, Dr Gounder said.
Mr Biden has proposed a public health corps of 100,000 Americans hired to support contact tracing across the country.
Efforts to tackle Covid-19 have varied significantly across the country. Dr Gounder said there is a “very piecemeal response, where each state is doing their own thing depending on local politics”.
She said the state-led approach meant that some “patchiness” is likely to continue regardless of who is president. But she added that Biden team wants to support states with funding, guidance and “political backing and cover when they are doing things that might be unpopular that will make a big difference”.
“The state and local health departments have really been thrown into the deep end. They are treading water and they are drowning,” she said.
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