As the world grapples to contain a troubling new strain of the coronavirus, an early criticism of the U.S. response has come from an influential critic: Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration.
Gottlieb is alarmed that this country’s capacity to test for the pathogen is lagging as the outbreak spreads from China to 27 other countries. It is imperative that Congress and the Trump administration act on his concerns to ensure the nation has the readiness and resources to contain this new public health threat.
In a long Twitter thread posted Feb. 2, Gottlieb said swifter, broader screening is needed nationally to detect coronavirus, which has sickened more than 28,000 people in China. The Catch-22, as Gottlieb called it, is that so far, only the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has been able to run the tests for this virus, creating a bottleneck. For testing to occur elsewhere, leaders of two key federal agencies must sign off to allow the CDC to share technology.
There’s generally a two-part process during outbreaks. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services first has to determine whether there’s a public health emergency or “significant potential” for one. Once that decision is made, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can issue an emergency authorization allowing testing beyond the CDC. The Department of Health and Human Services finally declared the public health emergency Jan. 31 — a full month after the outbreak was reported in Wuhan, China.
To their credit, the FDA and the CDC were ready to go. The FDA issued its emergency use authorization Tuesday. On Thursday, the CDC announced it had begun shipping test kits to “qualified U.S. and international laboratories.” The CDC had also taken previous steps to share information to help commercial firms develop tests. That could expand testing more broadly, potentially allowing hospitals to run them. Clearly, these two agencies grasped the urgency. ...
Questions are merited about how long it took HHS to set the process in motion. During a previous outbreak of another coronavirus, one called MERS, HHS had made this critical declaration before a case occurred in the U.S. The agency can act when there’s a significant potential for a public health crisis. ...
On Thursday, an HHS spokesman noted that it took MERS much longer to reach the U.S. than the new coronavirus, “so we had plenty of time to develop a test before the virus got here.” The spokesman referred other questions to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, headed by Seema Verma.
Tensions between Verma and HHS Secretary Alex Azar have repeatedly made headlines, raising serious questions about how well the agency is running. Verma’s staff did not respond to an editorial’s writer’s questions about the declaration’s timing, but transparency is imperative. Congress should follow up.