How coronavirus testing fumbles squandered valuable time
As coronavirus test kits were malfunctioning in public health labs across the country, Dr. Robert Redfield repeatedly assured his fellow task force officials in February that the problem would be quickly solved.
The White House had little reason to doubt Redfield. His agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had a storied history as the preeminent testing authority.
Even as the problem persisted and days stretched into weeks, Redfield and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar -- then the lead of the coronavirus task force -- provided "assurances it was being dealt with," a senior administration official said.
Most other members of the recently created White House task force -- officials from the chief of staff's office and the National Security Council -- weren't public health experts. They placed their faith in the nation's top health officials.
"When the CDC, who was has always been able to handle these things -- when they tell us they have this thing under control, who are we to say, 'You double PhDs, MDs who have been doing this for years, no you're wrong,'" said the administration official. It took roughly three weeks to sort out the failed test kits, far longer than the CDC had anticipated. Along the way, regulators would discover the lab producing the test kits was contaminated, likely causing the tests to malfunction, according to a senior administration official. CDC Director Robert Redfield leaves the Capitol after he and others from the coronavirus task force briefed Congress in February (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Officials would scramble to cobble together a solution to get diagnostic tests to the states. And throughout it all, the deadly virus ---- far more contagious than health experts initially thought -- was spreading across the country, largely undetected. In addition to squandering time on the flawed test, federal officials failed to ensure there would be ample testing supplies to support the effort, established such restrictive testing guidelines that sick people were being denied tests, and did not fully enact a 2018 agreement with public and private labs aimed at quickly enlisting their help in such a health crisis. By the time commercial labs were brought into the effort, the demand for tests was so high that backlogs further delayed results, CNN found. The Trump administration's failure to quickly scale up testing would continue to cripple the US response to the pandemic for months. Even now -- three months after the first detected case of the coronavirus in the US -- testing remains a key challenge to President Donald Trump's push to reopen the economy. "There's very little that has gone well. Actually, I'm not sure what has gone well," said Scott Becker, who heads a national association of health labs and has been deeply immersed in the response to the crisis. "It's just been a continuing cascade of challenges." Caitlin Oakley, an HHS spokeswoman, defended testing efforts under Azar. "Secretary Azar responded with urgency at every step of the response and continues to do so," she said in a statement to CNN. Any insinuation that he didn't is "just plain wrong and disproven by the facts." A CDC spokesman said Redfield did not offer any assurances about how long it would take to fix the testing problem because the CDC didn't know what was causing it at the time. This account of the administration's struggle to build a widespread testing infrastructure is based on documents from public records requests, internal records from a private testing facility obtained by CNN, and interviews with current and former government officials, public health experts, doctors and scientists. The test fails Medical personnel in San Francisco secure a sample from a person at a drive-thru coronavirus testing station in March. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Public health officials were eagerly awaiting the CDC test kits when they were shipped out Feb. 6. In Orange County, Calif., staffers in the public health lab worked over the weekend to get the test up and running. They quickly grew frustrated, realizing they couldn't validate the test. "Lab networks talk," said Dr. Matt Zahn, medical director for the communicable disease control division of the Orange County Health Care Agency. "We were all talking to each other around the country saying there is a problem here. What wasn't clear is what the solution to that would be." Zahn knew the virus was likely circulating in the community because California has a lot of travelers to and from Asia. His mind drifted to worst-case scenarios. "If a virus gets into healthcare facilities, gets into hospitals, gets into nursing homes -- that was our major concern," he said. "It was just really tough." Within days of shipping out the tests, the CDC began getting reports that they weren't functioning properly. By Feb. 10, more than half the states were reporting problems with the test kits, a federal official said. The CDC notified the Food and Drug Administration about the problem and began consulting with the FDA on ways to fix it. In the meantime, the only way to test a coronavirus patient in the US was to collect a sample and send it to the CDC for testing. On average, the official said in those initial testing days it took "three to four days" to get a result back to the person who took the specimen. By Sara Murray, Nick Valencia, Jeremy Diamond and Scott Glover, CNN
Updated 8:04 AM ET, Mon April 20, 2020