The Joe Biden administration announced on Monday a $231.8 million contract with Australian company Ellume to buy 8.5 million rapid at-home coronavirus tests. The test will be available for the public to take without a prescription and provides results within 15 minutes.
After the company announced that the tests were 96 percent accurate in December, it received an emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. The test uses a cotton nasal swab that’s less invasive than the current standard tests, which is put into a digital Bluetooth analyzer, which then sends results to a smartphone.
The White House said that the contract was partially struck in order to provide the company enough funding to ramp up manufacturing, which is currently low. Andy Slavitt, the White House’s senior adviser on COVID-19, told reporters that the company will ship 100,000 tests per month from February to July. “That’s good, but it’s obviously not where we will need to be,” Slavitt said.
Each test currently costs $30 to buy, which is, for some, prohibitively expensive. That’s part of what the White House’s contract is trying to solve.
A press release from Ellume says that the contract will help the company to build its first manufacturing plant in the U.S. Slavitt says that this will help ramp up production and drive down cost. “Thanks to this contract, they’ll be able to scale the production to manufacture over 19 million test kits per month by the end of this year, 8.5 million of which are guaranteed to the U.S. government,” said Slavitt.
Ramping up the amount and convenience of tests available to the public is a vital part of quelling the pandemic, experts say. Testing asymptomatic people, for instance, can help an individual decide to stay home in order to not spread the virus. This will only be viable when the tests are widely available, and not just available to people with symptoms, which is the case in some states.
The at-home test contract announcement comes at a time of other promising news on the pandemic, like the fact that all five of the vaccines whose companies have announced results are effective in preventing death. Though they vary in efficacy in preventing infection, the Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer vaccines in the U.S., and the AstraZeneca and Novavax in Europe have all had promising results for preventing hospitalizations and death.
After last week’s news of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine being less effective at preventing infection, but still just as effective at preventing death, the news was met with skepticism as to whether the vaccine could help quell the pandemic. But, while people should still be careful even when they have been vaccinated, Harvard epidemiologist Julia Marcus wrote in The Atlantic that these new vaccine results should give people hope. “Vaccines provide a true reduction of risk, not a false sense of security,” Marcus wrote. “The vaccines are poised to deliver what people so desperately want: an end, however protracted, to this pandemic.”
There’s also a sense of the tide turning on the vaccine distribution front. Though it’s only the second week of the new presidential administration, Biden’s COVID team has placed an emphasis on organizing the country’s vaccine distribution system, which appears to be getting results. On Sunday, Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson thanked the Biden administration for its work on vaccine administration so far, saying that, “in terms of the vaccine distribution, it’s been seamless.”