Senator Murray writes to Vice President Pence demanding answers about delays and issues with coronavirus diagnostic testing
Senator Murray grilled FDA Commissioner Hahn at a HELP hearing earlier this week about the test production issues
Murray: “I am extremely frustrated by how the Trump Administration has handled the deployment of such tests, including how it has communicated to Congress and the public about when, where, and to whom tests will be available.”
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence expressing her deep frustration with the Administration’s missteps and lack of transparency regarding testing for the novel coronavirus. In the letter, she laid out several instances where failures by this Administration have resulted in a slower deployment of tests to people in need. Additionally, the Senator pressed for answers regarding discrepancies between the Trump Administration’s claims about how many tests would be available when and the predictions of public health experts.
“As I hear from Washington state residents and people across the country, I want to be able to provide them answers about the availability of diagnostic tests for the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). I am extremely frustrated by how the Trump Administration has handled the deployment of such tests, including how it has communicated to Congress and the public about when, where, and to whom tests will be available. In the midst of this public health emergency, the Trump Administration must do better,” wrote senator Murray. “The Administration has failed several times to take steps that could expedite the COVID-19 response, resulting in a slower deployment of tests to people in need. ”
In her opening remarks at a HELP Committee hearing earlier this week, Senator Murray shared that frustration she has been hearing from people in Washington state regarding the availability of diagnostic testing.
“People across Washington state—and the nation—are really scared,” Senator Murray said in her opening remarks yesterday. “I’m hearing from people who want to get tested and believe they have been exposed—but nobody can tell them where to go. I’m hearing that even when people can get tested—and it’s very few—the results aren’t coming back as fast as we’ve been told they would. The Administration had months to prepare for this—and it is unacceptable that people at risk of infection in my state and nationwide can’t even get an answer as to whether or not they are infected. To put it simply, if someone at the White House or in this Administration is actually in charge of responding to the coronavirus, it would be news to anyone in my state.”
See Senator Murray’s letter to Vice President Pence below, and PDF HERE.
March 5, 2020
The Honorable Mike Pence
Vice President of the United States
The White House
Office of the Vice President
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Vice President Pence:
As I hear from Washington state residents and people across the country, I want to be able to provide them answers about the availability of diagnostic tests for the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). I am extremely frustrated by how the Trump Administration has handled the deployment of such tests, including how it has communicated to Congress and the public about when, where, and to whom tests will be available. In the midst of this public health emergency, the Trump Administration must do better.
The Administration has failed several times to take steps that could expedite the COVID-19 response, resulting in a slower deployment of tests to people in need. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) distributed a three-component diagnostic test to state and local health labs. Unfortunately, when some of those laboratories attempted to validate the tests, they delivered inconclusive results, and only six state laboratories verified the test for use. The CDC cited manufacturing defects and promised a replacement for the three-component test. The Administration was unclear, however, about exactly how long that would take and, as of last week, CDC was still managing the bulk of testing, requiring states across the country to ship specimens to agency headquarters in Atlanta for testing. CDC has now deployed a two-component replacement, and state lab testing is finally beginning to scale up. As a result of these delays, fewer than 500 patients in the United States were tested through January and February, during a time when experts now believe the virus was circulating in Washington state.
As the number of cases rise across the country and we learn more about how this virus spreads, the federal government must be making all reasonable efforts to deploy tests where they are needed. Yet, I remain concerned by conflicting estimates of how many tests will actually be deployed and when. This type of confusion only adds to the uncertainty and anxiety many are feeling in my home state. Last weekend, you said approximately 15,000 test kits were being shipped to labs, with each kit able to test between 700 to 800 patient specimens. Yet on Sunday, CDC said it had shipped only 47 test kits to public health labs.
At a HELP Committee hearing earlier this week, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Stephen Hahn told me his agency is hearing from commercial test manufacturers about their ability to deploy 2,500 test kits, including to academic and commercial labs, by the end of this week. According to Commissioner Hahn, this should allow labs to perform up to one million tests, once they are validated. Vice President Pence announced yesterday that 1.5 million tests will be available this week. FDA has also indicated that, by the end of next week, the production capacity of commercial tests by just one commercial test manufacturer could reach up to four million tests per week.
Yet, in projecting commercial lab capacity, the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) said its member laboratories are “a couple of weeks away from being able to deploy a million tests through this process.” In speaking about its public health lab capacity, APHL estimated it will be able to conduct about 10,000 tests per day when all of its 100 member labs are running. It is difficult to tell my state and people across the country what to expect with such conflicting estimates.
I also hope to gain clarity for health experts and officials in my state about current CDC testing criteria. Yesterday, CDC posted revised criteria on its website, now directing clinicians to use their judgment for whether a patient should be tested. Earlier this week, you announced “fast-tracking” for people who may have the virus, but it is not yet clear what that process looks like.
We need to understand what is going wrong around testing, and the lack of transparency from the Administration so far is unacceptable. The President is contradicting his public health experts in communicating about the scope of this disease and what his Administration is doing to respond. The leadership at Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is facing mounting criticism for its management of the response broadly, including specifically on issues surrounding testing. HHS is launching an investigation into the first round of manufacturing issues with CDC’s diagnostic tests, but has not announced who will be conducting that inquiry and whether it will be conducted by staff who have been part of the COVID-19 response. At least three individuals have been designated as “leaders” or “coordinators” of the federal government’s COVD-19 response.
My constituents in Washington state – from public health officials to health care providers to those who fear they are sick – are looking for answers. Please respond to the following questions by no later than March 19, 2020:
Thank you in advance for you attention to this matter. If you have any questions, or would like to further discuss compliance with this request, please contact Elizabeth Letter with Senator Murray’s HELP Committee Staff at 202-224-0767.
United States Senator
Ranking Member, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee
cc: The Honorable Alex Azar
Secretary of Health and Human Services
Dr. Robert Redfield
Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The Honorable Stephen Hahn
Commissioner of Food and Drugs
 https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/summary.html; https://www.oregonlive.com/health/2020/02/coronavirus-testing-should-be-ready-in-every-state-by-end-of-next-week-cdc-says.html; https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/01/health-officials-probe-coronavirus-cdc-118523; Senate HELP Committee Hearing, “An Emerging Disease Threat: How the U.S. Is Responding to COVID-19, the Novel Coronavirus,” March 3, 2020.
 Senate HELP Committee Hearing, “An Emerging Disease Threat: How the U.S. Is Responding to COVID-19, the Novel Coronavirus,” March 3, 2020.