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Companies ramp up production of rapid COVID tests but they are still hard to get

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's tough these days to get your hands on one of the few things helping us get some sense of normalcy in this latest COVID surge, and we're talking about rapid COVID tests. They're being used more and more to help keep kids in school and get many of us back to work. The White House is focused on trying to ship 500 million free tests to Americans who request them. It's reportedly finalizing details with the U.S. Postal Service to deliver those kits, and that's according to The Washington Post. But for now, rapid COVID tests are in very short supply across the country, and prices are increasing. NPR's health correspondent Yuki Noguchi joins us now. Yuki, clearly, demand's still way outstripping what's available. When will that start to get better?

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Well, there are now a dozen companies with FDA authorization to sell their rapid tests in the U.S., and they're all obviously ramping up production. So supplies are increasing, but how many and how quickly they'll be available is the main question. There are - or there were 200 million rapid at-home tests available in the U.S. in December. I spoke with Arizona State professor Mara Aspinall. She closely tracks testing supply, and she anticipates modest increases for January and February. And in March, the U.S. will get to a half a billion tests a month. But, A, that's by no means a sure thing.

MARA ASPINALL: I know what it's like to scale up a manufacturing plant. I know what it's like to scale up production for a product. So when somebody says they're going to do a hundred million in month one - eh.

NOGUCHI: A, as you can hear there, she's kind of skeptical.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

NOGUCHI: The whole economy is obviously struggling with staffing problems and problems importing things from overseas, and test makers feel that, too.

MARTINEZ: Meanwhile, the Biden administration is promising to offer half a billion free tests through a website. Will that make it easier for people to get the test, or will it divert tests that might have gone to store shelves?

NOGUCHI: Well, I mean, it shouldn't because the White House says those additional tests won't take away those supplies headed to the drugstores and other retailers. But, you know, again, when is the question. The program isn't up and running yet. This week, the government got bids from companies that make the rapid tests, and that contract may be awarded as soon as today. But then the government needs to set up its website, which doesn't exist yet. So when will consumers start receiving them? The White House says, in coming weeks. But Walgreens' chief financial officer told investors he thought it might take months.

MARTINEZ: What about drugstores? I know I've been peeking my head in there once in a while to see if there's a test there.

NOGUCHI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And those shelves have been bare. You know, those stores are seeing lots of sales from at-home tests. But drugstore chains are, you know, basically at the mercy of the same dynamics. They're in the same boat, waiting for supply to increase.

MARTINEZ: I mean, Yuki, we're two years into the pandemic. Schools, workplaces, travel, they all depend on these tests. So why is supply still a problem?

NOGUCHI: Yeah, it's because the U.S. really didn't prioritize tests like they did vaccines, you know? And it comes down to investment and demand. The government made no big investments in testing until fairly recently. And at least earlier in the pandemic, there wasn't the demand for these tests. So really, if you want to have a ready supply, Mara Aspinall says, we need predictable demand.

ASPINALL: There has to be sustainable demand for companies to make significant investments.

NOGUCHI: And what she means by that is, you know, big government contracts that last years, not just months, or building a national stockpile ahead of the next variant. And we haven't been doing that. We lost, in fact, interest in tests until the delta variant came and then omicron. And at that point, of course, there was no real existing inventory.

MARTINEZ: And given how scarce these rapid tests are, there is now talk of prioritizing them to the most vulnerable. How might that work?

NOGUCHI: Well, you know, the government does have existing programs to sort of distribute free tests to the underserved, so they might use that. You know, some public health experts are even saying, you know, if you're sick but vaccinated, don't test. Just assume you're infected, and take precautions. So I - but I think the primary way, you know, to reach those people is, again, by upping testing supply.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Yuki Noguchi. Thanks a lot.

NOGUCHI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.