In the first weeks of the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States, a shocking breakdown in quality control at the CDC’s central laboratory in Atlanta led to cross-contamination of test materials that made the first round of tests shipped out around the country worthless. Correcting the issue took more than a month, during which time COVID-19 was spreading across the country, undetected and unacknowledged by the White House, where Donald Trump continually assured the nation that all was well. As it became clear that the number of cases was far outrunning the available tests, the FDA used emergency authority to allow the use of alternative antibody tests that ultimately flooded in from more than 200 companies. Now CBS News is reporting that not only where many of these tests flawed, but agencies knew they were flawed. But, eager to cover up the shortage of U. S. tests available, these tests were allowed to circulate, unchecked for 50 days. Meanwhile, state and county officials made decisions about how to handle social distancing and stay-at-home orders on the results of these tests. Cities used the test to find first responders and social workers had been exposed, and to test essential personnel. People made life and death decisions on the basis of tests that didn’t work — and the people who allowed those tests to circulate, knew it.
The story, which will appear Sunday evening on 60 Minutes, details how some cities detected the flawed tests on their own. Laredo, Texas purchased thousands of tests with the intention of setting up drive-through testing sites. Fortunately, before they did so, the city’s health director checked the tests against known samples and found their accuracy was only 20% — they were wrong far more often than they were right. Laredo’s testing plans were placed on hold, a delay that meant they couldn’t track the local progress of the epidemic or properly protect healthcare workers. But other cities had it worse because they trusted the tests. They used that information to open businesses, or close them, to allocate medical resources, and to decide how to handle everything from schools to hospitals.
In the case of Laredo, the worthless tests were reported. Officials from Homeland Security appeared, took the tests, and … there is no “and.” No apparent results came from reporting the tests, other that someone showed up to hide them. If there was any investigation of this test, or any other, it’s certainly not visible.
In addition to those local results, faulty tests — and faulty testing — had a tremendous impact on the public response. For example, in mid-April, conservative researchers associated with the Hoover Institute reported that rates of infection in California were dozens of times higher than expected, and that COVID-19 was actually much less dangerous than previously reported. The results of thee announcements immediately came under suspicion, but that hasn’t stopped these and other similar claims from circulating widely.
Even the 50 day free-for-all where the FDA allowed in tests without any consideration at all was far from the end of the problem. It took three months before the FDA began to pull the ineffective tests. In May, they began to require companies to submit data showing their tests were accurate—though it’s completely unclear how much scrutiny that data received. It’s possible that millions of people in the United States took tests that were either worthless—or worse than worthless. People receiving false-negative results may have unknowingly exposed others. People receiving false positives may have become infected after being given a false sense of safety.
Donald Trump and Mike Pence have been bragged on the response to COVID-19 as a “whole government effort.” That certainly seems to be the case. From the CDC that failed to produce sufficient tests, to the FDA that allowed an unchecked flood of inaccurate tests into the country, to Homeland Security that failed to follow up on investigations, it took everyone working together to screw up this completely.
Posted with permission from Daily Kos