How Excessive Regulation Helped Ignite COVID-19's Rampant Spread

Screenshot of an interactive map of coronavirus cases across the United States, current as of 1:45 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday, March 31st. Full map accessible at https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

(© 2020 Johns Hopkins University)


When historians of the future look back at the 2020 pandemic, the heroic work of Helen Y. Chu, a flu researcher at the University of Washington, will be worthy of recognition.

Chu's team bravely defied the order and conducted the testing anyway.

In late January, Chu was testing nasal swabs for the Seattle Flu Study to monitor influenza spread when she learned of the first case of COVID-19 in Washington state. She deemed it a pressing public health matter to document if and how the illness was spreading locally, so that early containment efforts could succeed. So she sought regulatory approval to adapt the Flu Study to test for the coronavirus, but the federal government denied the request because the original project was funded to study only influenza.

Aware of the urgency, Chu's team bravely defied the order and conducted the testing anyway. Soon they identified a local case in a teenager without any travel history, followed by others. Still, the government tried to shutter their efforts until the outbreak grew dangerous enough to command attention.

Needless testing delays, prompted by excessive regulatory interference, eliminated any chances of curbing the pandemic at its initial stages. Even after Chu went out on a limb to sound alarms, a heavy-handed bureaucracy crushed the nation's ability to roll out early and widespread testing across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention infamously blundered its own test, while also impeding state and private labs from coming on board, fueling a massive shortage.

The long holdup created "a backlog of testing that needed to be done," says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist who is a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

In a public health crisis, "the ideal situation" would allow the government's test to be "supplanted by private laboratories" without such "a lag in that transition," Adalja says. Only after the eventual release of CDC's test could private industry "begin in earnest" to develop its own versions under the Food and Drug Administration's emergency use authorization.

In a statement, CDC acknowledged that "this process has not gone as smoothly as we would have liked, but there is currently no backlog for testing at CDC."

Now, universities and corporations are in a race against time, playing catch up as the virus continues its relentless spread, also afflicting many health care workers on the front lines.

"Home-testing accessibility is key to preventing further spread of the COVID-19 pandemic."

Hospitals are attempting to add the novel coronavirus to the testing panel of their existent diagnostic machines, which would reduce the results processing time from 48 hours to as little as four hours. Meanwhile, at least four companies announced plans to deliver at-home collection tests to help meet the demand – before a startling injunction by the FDA halted their plans.

Everlywell, an Austin, Texas-based digital health company, had been set to launch online sales of at-home collection kits directly to consumers last week. Scaling up in a matter of days to an initial supply of 30,000 tests, Everlywell collaborated with multiple laboratories where consumers could ship their nasal swab samples overnight, projecting capacity to screen a quarter-million individuals on a weekly basis, says Frank Ong, chief medical and scientific officer.

Secure digital results would have been available online within 48 hours of a sample's arrival at the lab, as well as a telehealth consultation with an independent, board-certified doctor if someone tested positive, for an inclusive $135 cost. The test has a less than 3 percent false-negative rate, Ong says, and in the event of an inadequate self-swab, the lab would not report a conclusive finding. "Home-testing accessibility," he says, "is key to preventing further spread of the COVID-19 pandemic."

But on March 20, the FDA announced restrictions on home collection tests due to concerns about accuracy. The agency did note "the public health value in expanding the availability of COVID-19 testing through safe and accurate tests that may include home collection," while adding that "we are actively working with test developers in this space."

After the restrictions were announced, Everlywell decided to allocate its initial supply of COVID-19 collection kits to hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and other qualifying health care companies that can commit to no-cost screening of frontline workers and high-risk symptomatic patients. For now, no consumers can order a home-collection test.

"Losing two months is close to disastrous, and that's what we did."

Currently, the U.S. has ramped up to testing an estimated 100,000 people a day, according to Stat News. But 150,000 or more Americans should be tested every day, says Ashish Jha, professor and director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. Due to the dearth of tests, many sick people who suspect they are infected still cannot get confirmation unless they need to be hospitalized.

To give a concrete sense of how far behind we are in testing, consider Palm Beach County, Fla. The state's only drive-thru test center just opened there, requiring an appointment. The center aims to test 750 people per day, but more than 330,000 people have already called to try to book a slot.

"This is such a rapidly moving infection that losing a few days is bad, and losing a couple of weeks is terrible," says Jha, a practicing general internist. "Losing two months is close to disastrous, and that's what we did."

At this point, it will take a long time to fully ramp up. "We are blindfolded," he adds, "and I'd like to take the blindfolds off so we can fight this battle with our eyes wide open."

Better late than never: Yesterday, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement that the agency has worked with more than 230 test developers and has approved 20 tests since January. An especially notable one was authorized last Friday – 67 days since the country's first known case in Washington state. It's a rapid point-of-care test from medical-device firm Abbott that provides positive results in five minutes and negative results in 13 minutes. Abbott will send 50,000 tests a day to urgent care settings. The first tests are expected to ship tomorrow.

Susan Kreimer
Susan Kreimer is a New York-based freelance journalist who has followed the landscape of health care since the late 1990s, initially as a staff reporter for major daily newspapers. She writes about breakthrough studies, personal health, and the business of clinical practice. Raised in the Chicago area, she holds a B.A. in Journalism/Mass Communication and French from the University of Iowa and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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Dr. Jha discusses Covid vaccine passports, how supply and demand of the vaccines is about to shift, the AstraZeneca situation, what's new with kids, herd immunity, and more.

Photo of sticker by Marisol Benitez on Unsplash; Jha photo by Brown University.
Making Sense of Science features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This monthly podcast is hosted by journalist Kira Peikoff, founding editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.


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Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of public health at Brown University, discusses the latest developments around the Covid-19 vaccines, including supply and demand, herd immunity, kids, vaccine passports, and why he expects the summer to look very good.

Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.

The Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in 1942 tragically claimed 490 lives, but was the catalyst for several important medical advances.

Boston Public Library

On the evening of November 28, 1942, more than 1,000 revelers from the Boston College-Holy Cross football game jammed into the Cocoanut Grove, Boston's oldest nightclub. When a spark from faulty wiring accidently ignited an artificial palm tree, the packed nightspot, which was only designed to accommodate about 500 people, was quickly engulfed in flames. In the ensuing panic, hundreds of people were trapped inside, with most exit doors locked. Bodies piled up by the only open entrance, jamming the exits, and 490 people ultimately died in the worst fire in the country in forty years.

"People couldn't get out," says Dr. Kenneth Marshall, a retired plastic surgeon in Boston and president of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee. "It was a tragedy of mammoth proportions."

Within a half an hour of the start of the blaze, the Red Cross mobilized more than five hundred volunteers in what one newspaper called a "Rehearsal for Possible Blitz." The mayor of Boston imposed martial law. More than 300 victims—many of whom subsequently died--were taken to Boston City Hospital in one hour, averaging one victim every eleven seconds, while Massachusetts General Hospital admitted 114 victims in two hours. In the hospitals, 220 victims clung precariously to life, in agonizing pain from massive burns, their bodies ravaged by infection.

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.