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State labs are scrambling to get their hands on a new in-demand coronavirus test that can find a positive result in “as little as five minutes.” But the federal government has planned to order it in quantities far below what would be needed to achieve widespread testing, according to emails obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The test, developed by Abbott Laboratories, has been highly coveted by state and local laboratories ever since the FDA rapidly approved it under an “emergency use authorization” last Friday. Its ability to generate a result between 5 and 13 minutes drew widespread attention because testing is severely lagging nationwide, with some states more behind than others.
For instance, California — the nation’s most populous state, with 39 million residents — has completed 33,000 tests, but has a backlog that is 59,000 deep.
According to a spreadsheet circulated in a Monday email between officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services, California’s public health lab would receive just 15 testing machines and 100 coronavirus tests. Los Angeles County’s public health lab would receive the same amount.
According to the spreadsheet, all 50 state health departments, as well as some local health departments, would each receive 10 to 15 devices for a total of 780 devices distributed nationwide. Each lab would also be receiving 100 coronavirus tests — a total of 5,500 tests across the country. The document was first reported by Kaiser Health News.
An Abbott representative said the spreadsheet only included devices that are part of an “intended purchase” by HHS and FEMA and that more were on the way.
Abbott spokesperson Darcy Ross said Friday afternoon that the company started sending tests on Wednesday, and by the end of Friday “will have shipped more than 190,000 of those rapid tests to 21 states.”
The nearly 200,000 tests are going to urgent care clinics, hospital emergency departments, physicians’ offices, and other customers outside the federal government, Ross said. She did not specify which states would be receiving them first.
A FEMA representative referred questions to HHS. HHS spokesperson Mia Heck confirmed that the agency only ordered 5,500 tests "because only 50k would be available in the first week, and we wanted to leave market share for hospitals and other healthcare providers to purchase through the commercial sector."
"The federal government is purchasing the Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 rapid point-of-care test for state public health labs, as state labs cannot compete on pricing for cutting edge test machines on the open market," Heck told BuzzFeed News by email. "We are sending 15 machines each to public health lab in all fifty states and to the Pacific Islands and 250 to the Indian Health Service. We’re sending 50 to Alaska because they are so remote. Twenty will go to the CDC and 50 to the Strategic National Stockpile."
To date, it is unclear how many states have actually received or started using the tests.
In a press conference over the weekend in the Rose Garden, President Donald Trump praised the test, saying, “That’s a whole new ball game. I want to thank Abbott Labs for the incredible work they’ve done. They’ve been working around the clock.”
But states have reportedly struggled to obtain the test. On Wednesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told the Washington Post, “We’ve talked to Abbott. They’re shortly supposed to have a small amount of testing machines out to the states. No governor in America has received any yet.”
This story was updated to include comments from a spokesperson for HHS.