Biden plans federal board to surge COVID-19 testing. What might that look like?

Scott Tong Jan 5, 2021
Heard on:
President-elect Joe Biden announces key members of his health team in December. Ramping up coronavirus testing will be one of his priorities. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Biden plans federal board to surge COVID-19 testing. What might that look like?

Scott Tong Jan 5, 2021
Heard on:
President-elect Joe Biden announces key members of his health team in December. Ramping up coronavirus testing will be one of his priorities. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The incoming Biden administration plans a massive scale-up of COVID-19 testing, with a plan modeled on wartime efforts to mobilize industry for national emergencies. But such an effort may test the flexibility or resources of the private sector.

Ten months into the pandemic, public health advocates say the country still doesn’t have enough tests to go around and that results come too slowly. By the end of January, some 10 million tests will be performed every day, according to a recent report from the Rockefeller Foundation. But the country needs at least four times that many, said Mara Aspinall, the report’s co-author and a biomedical diagnostics professor at Arizona State University.

In particular, she said, it’s important to test individuals with no symptoms.

“Some recent studies would say 80% of people [with COVID-19] are asymptomatic,” Aspinall said. “So every day we hear, ‘I feel fine.’ But the reality is, you may still have COVID and you may still be infectious.”

Even people who receive the vaccine may require testing.

“It looks like the vaccines reduce symptoms to essentially zero, but it’s not clear whether the vaccine prevents you from getting COVID,” she said. “So you could be a carrier.”

Biden-Harris COVID-19 proposal. Source:

To boost testing, the Biden team has proposed a federal Pandemic Testing Board, modeled after the War Production Board, which was created in 1942, weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. That board pushed U.S. companies to make weapons and ammunition and promoted the role of American workers on the homefront.

“The machine guns could not be fired and the planes could not fly without the painstaking effort of millions of desk workers and factory workers,” War Production Board Chairman Donald Nelson, a former Sears, Roebuck executive, said in a 1944 promotional video.

War Production Board promotional video, 1944.

The board compelled Chrysler to make tanks and Ford to make bombers, among other companies. It centralized the buying of materials so companies and states didn’t compete with one another. That was a problem in a previous war.

During the Civil War, purchasing agents from various Union states fended for themselves and created inefficiencies, historian Mark Wilson of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte said.

“So they might go to London, and there might be agents from 10 different states trying to scare up some scarce muskets,” Wilson said. “They’d be competing against one another for scarce supplies.”

As for the Biden team, it has provided few specifics on its testing board’s plans. One option advocated by some groups is for the federal government to build new plants to manufacture test kits, machines and supplies. The feds made similar investments during World War II to jump-start production of synthetic rubber because natural rubber supplies from Asia were controlled by the Japanese army.

The U.S. government “owned a massive amount of new industrial plant,” Wilson said. “And they turned to private companies to manage or operate these plants.”

To encourage testing companies and equipment makers to make more products, the government could promise to buy everything that rolled off factory lines. That could benefit small firms in particular.

“Startups that are working on things like new testing that we want to upscale here, they do not have the financial wherewithal to make those investments without a guaranteed buyer,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a Biden adviser and head of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative. “Which should be government.”

Of course, testing can’t be done without essential materials like test tubes, proprietary plastic parts and nasal swabs — all of which “remain in critically short supply,” according to the Rockefeller Foundation report.

The government could help clear up the murky supply chain.

“Making sure that we are keeping track of which supplies are getting low, communicating it effectively so that states and localities and people who are using these tests can really plan around potential shortages,” said Christina Silcox, managing associate at Duke University’s Margolis Center for Health Policy.

More controversially, the White House has the legal authority to force companies to give Washington what it wants. If the government wants to buy testing machines from a certain company at a certain time, it can.

“It jumps the line,” said Jerry McGinn, former head of contracting at the Pentagon and executive director of the Center for Government Contracting at George Mason University. “And prioritizes that production to be done first, before anything else. That’s been something regularly used throughout the pandemic.”

Still, intervention in the economy can bring trade-offs. If a company expands test production now, can the government guarantee a smooth transition back to its normal operations?

“I think the answer, unfortunately, is no,” McGinn said. “After World War II, we ramped down dramatically companies that had been building ships. I’m sure they had to lay off workforce, and some of it’s unavoidable.”

Even in wartime, company executives have been leery of a government that steps too far into the private economy. An overly aggressive Biden White House approach to testing could shock the body politic. Over the past couple of generations, both the Democrats and the Republicans “have embraced a more deregulatory approach to capitalism,” historian Mark Wilson said.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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