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Biden’s COVID home test plan faces supply chain hurdles

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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the omicron variant of the coronavirus in the State Dining Room of the White House, Dec. 21.

President Joe Biden announces that he is planning to distribute half a billion at-home COVID-19 tests in response to the the spread of the coronavirus omicron variant. Drew Angerer via Getty Images

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As the omicron variant surges and COVID-19 cases spike, the Joe Biden administration is launching a number of initiatives in response: Military medical workers will prepare to help out civilian hospitals, new testing and vaccination sites will open, and the federal government will distribute 500 million at-home COVID tests for free.

The administration will reportedly instruct the companies that manufacture the tests to prioritize the federal order under the Defense Production Act.

But getting anything around the country hasn’t been all that easy during the pandemic. And the at-home tests have to make it through an already congested supply chain.

There are a lot of components that go into an at-home testing kit. “The packaging, the testing strip itself, the cotton swabs, the fluid that you use to administer the test,” said Gigi Gronvall at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

She’s been following the development of COVID tests throughout the pandemic and said many of those components have, at times, been in short supply.

“There’s been issues getting the cotton swabs, the nitrocellulose that’s used for the testing strips,” Gronvall said.

The Biden administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars helping manufacturers make more components. But manufacturing capacity hasn’t caught up with the latest surge of demand, according to Neil Sehgal, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

“Manufacturers, as they stand today, won’t be able to manufacture the 500 million tests that the Biden administration has committed to in a matter of weeks, but I don’t know that that’s the intent,” he said.

Once manufacturers do scale up production, they’ll have to ship those tests at a time when the supply chain has a lot of weak links.

“There could be links where not only components are in short supply, but worker absenteeism could lead to delays,” said Julie Swann, who researches health care supply chains at North Carolina State University.

On the other hand, Swann said it’ll be easier to distribute rapid tests than COVID vaccines, which have to be held at low temperatures.

That means the Biden administration has more options to deliver tests, Swann added. “As examples, they could use the National Guard, they could partner with Amazon and Target and CVS.”

The challenge, Swann said, will be making sure that the supply meets demand everywhere in the country.

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