Feds Reach $230M Deal to Boost Production of at-Home Covid Test

The 15-minute test uses a less invasive nasal swab and results are delivered through a smartphone app linked to a digital analyzer.

A bus stop ad for Covid-19 testing is shown outside Pfizer world headquarters in New York on Nov. 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Biden administration announced Monday that two federal agencies will invest over $230 million in an over-the-counter test to detect the Covid-19 virus.

The Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services are working together on a $231.8 million infusion in an at-home test made by Ellume USA, allowing the company to increase production of the tests considerably. The goal is to produce 640,000 tests per day by December.

Acting Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Andy Slavitt said during a White House Covid-19 response briefing Monday that the tests produce a result within 15 minutes, with about 95% accuracy.

The at-home test uses a less invasive nasal swab compared to initial testing methods. A sample is placed in a digital analyzer, which sends results to the customer’s smartphone through an app it is linked to. A kit is expected to cost about $30.

“Making easier to use tests available to every American is a high priority with obvious benefits,” Slavitt said. “Ellume has been ramping up manufacturing and will ship 100,000 test kits per month to the U.S. from February through July. That’s good but it’s obviously not where we will need to be.”

Slavitt said Ellume’s goal is to produce 19 million test kits a month by the end of the year. About 8.5 million of those are guaranteed to the U.S. government, he said.

Slavitt was joined at Monday’s briefing by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She reported the seven-day average for Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. had increased in the last week of January by 2.4%, bringing the average to 3,146 deaths per day. January was the deadliest month since the pandemic began, she said, with more than 90,000 American deaths last month alone.

As for the several reported mutations of Covid-19, Walensky said 467 patients with a variant of the virus first reported in the United Kingdom have been identified in 32 states. Three cases of a South African strain have been identified in the U.S., including in South Carolina and Maryland.

“With cases high and variants emerging, I want to stress to the American people the importance of taking a few simple actions we can all take together and stop the spread of Covid-19,” Walensky said. “Wear a mask and stay 6 feet apart when you are in public and around others that do not live in your household.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said pharmaceutical companies Johnson & Johnson and Novavax had reported promising findings from their vaccine trials, meaning it is likely there will be three different platforms of vaccines for Americans to use. Having the availability of all types of vaccine platforms – mRNA, soluble recombinant protein and viral vectors – helps scientists determine how effective each is, he said.

“So, as we get into the next weeks and months and more vaccines come out, there will be common use for them in the big pool of vaccines, not only for the United States but worldwide, but there may be some advantages that you might see with one versus the other,” Fauci said. “For example, the idea of a single dose, the lack of a very strict cold [supply] chain as well as the availability of having a large number of doses.”

Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a member of President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 advisory team, also gave an update on the administration’s plans to achieve racial equity for ethnic groups hit hardest by Covid-19 infection.

She said the effort includes analyzing data about the hospitalization and infection rates of racial minorities. For example, Native Americans, Latinos and African Americans are dying of Covid-19 at higher rates compared to the white population – specifically, virus deaths are 2.5% higher for Native Americans, 2.3% higher for Latinos and 2.1% higher for the Black community.

“The higher rates of hospitalization among Black, Latino and American Indian, Alaskan Native persons are due in part to higher rates of chronic disease,” Nunez-Smith said. “But [it] also reflects how Covid-19 has impacted access to testing in many communities of color.”

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