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The Question the CDC Won’t Answer About Coronavirus Testing

Why hasn’t the Trump administration embraced a reliable test made available by the World Health Organization?

President Trump, flanked by administration officials, holds a picture of the coronavirus.

President Trump, flanked by administration officials at CDC headquarters, holds a picture of the coronavirus.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

In his disturbing appearance at the Centers for Disease Control on Friday, President Trump bragged about the availability of testing for coronavirus: “Anybody that needs a test gets a test,” Trump said, adding of the nation’s public health authorities: “They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful. Anybody that needs a test gets a test.”

This boast was a lie. In many states, public health officials are rationing tests. An expose in The Atlantic Monday reported that fewer than 4,500 Americans have been tested for the virus nationwide. The lack of testing in the United States stands in sharp contrast to comparatively smaller countries like South Korea, which has tested more than 100,000 people. Both South Korea and Germany are offering drive-through testing, where patients are swabbed in their own cars at a local health facility, with test results within hours.

Oregon was one of the early states with demonstrated community spread of the virus. But testing here has been rationed, given only to patients who have been hospitalized, and had negative tests for diseases like flu and strep throat. Even with this tight restriction on testing, the state revealed it may run out of coronavirus test kits by Wednesday if it is not resupplied.

In California, an anonymous, whistle-blowing nurse who treated coronavirus patients later became ill with covid-19 symptoms. This person says they were initially denied a CDC test, then told to wait until a rationed test became available. “This is not the ticket dispenser at the deli counter; it’s a public health emergency!,” the nurse wrote. “I am a registered nurse, and I need to know if I am positive before going back to caring for patients.”

In the United States, a primary stumbling block to widespread testing has been the stubborn decision by the CDC to stick to its own, flawed testing methods. CDC rolled out a coronavirus test in February, out only to discover a problem with one of the reagents critical to the test’s reliability. Yet as the CDC has scrambled to fix its test, another functioning test has been available. WHO has successfully provided a competing German-developed test to countries across the world, allowing them to better trace the spread of the virus — not only confirming cases in obviously sick patients, but tracking down contacts who may have a mild form of the illness but can still spread it to others.

In a letter last week to Vice President Mike Pence, the administration’s point person on coronavirus, Senator Patty Murray — who serves Washington, the state hardest hit by the outbreak — demanded answers: “We need to understand what is going wrong around testing,” she wrote. “And the lack of transparency from the Administration so far is unacceptable.”

Murray’s letter asked the Trump administration to: “Please provide an explanation for why the COVID-19 diagnostic test approved by the World Health Organization was not used.”

On Friday, Rolling Stone asked the CDC to answer the same question about the WHO test. We also sought information on potential conflicts of interest — including whether the CDC’s test was developed in house, or the work of a contractor. We asked for a list of all contractors who had a financial interest in providing the agency with reagents and other components of the test. Despite multiple followups, the CDC has not responded.

Reached today, a CDC media staffer said that the agency was overwhelmed with press requests and was working through its backlog. Our questions, she said, were in the queue.

Under the Trump administration, it seems, the truth is also being rationed.

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