March 19, 2020 1:27PM

Government Failure in Coronavirus Testing

Dr. Anthony Fauci called federal coronavirus testing “a failing” and the Wall Street Journal followed up with details on CDC and FDA blunders.

The blunders appear to have stemmed from a “government knows best” mentality that has hobbled the private‐​sector response. Governments tend to spin messages, erect barriers to private efforts, and act with overconfidence yet fail to deliver. These same sorts of problems exacerbated the damage in other major disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina discussed here.

With coronavirus testing, the federal government appears to have made numerous mistakes. According to the Journal article, government hindered private testing because of concerns about accuracy, yet the CDC’s own test was inaccurate. The CDC told the states its testing capacity was adequate, but that was proved wrong as demand soared. Private labs were required to use the CDC’s testing method, but that resulted in depleting the materials needed for that test. Private labs were dissuaded from pursuing testing by officials who said they had it covered. Finally, the FDA put up bureaucratic barriers to private test development, such as requiring special permissions.

Thankfully, the government has changed course and the CDC and FDA are fixing these problems. America is counting on federal health agencies to succeed in this crisis, so I hope some broader lessons are learned. Top‐​down controls, misinformation, barriers to private efforts, and treating the private sector as a bit player are common mistakes in disaster response.

Here are some highlights from the Wall Street Journal piece by Christopher Weaver, Betsy McKay, and Brianna Abbott:

While the virus was quietly spreading within the U.S., the CDC had told state and local officials its “testing capacity is more than adequate to meet current testing demands …”

… Federal officials hoped the virus could be contained—even as they disputed alarms from those on the front lines that the CDC’s guidelines weren’t keeping up with the outbreak’s spread …

… CDC officials botched an initial test kit developed in an agency lab, retracting many tests. They resisted calls from state officials and medical providers to broaden testing, and health officials failed to coordinate with outside companies to ensure needed test‐​kit supplies …

… The Government Accountability Office had warned federal officials in early January that its readiness for something like a pandemic fell short, a GAO official said. GAO investigators found crisis plans didn’t fully account for the huge role the private sector would have to play, documents show.

… The FDA first announced labs seeking to perform testing would have to submit a special application to get permission to start on Feb. 4. That initially deterred some hospitals and other lab operators—which normally aren’t required to submit any application—from developing tests, experts say.

“We had considered developing a test but had been in communication with the CDC and FDA and had been told that the federal and state authorities would be able to handle everything,” Alan Wells, the medical director for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s clinical laboratories, told reporters over the weekend. He said in an interview on Monday that it later became clear the CDC and states were overwhelmed.

Once the CDC launched its initial test in the first week of February, the response was quickly stymied by setbacks, including flaws that forced the CDC to claw back many of the kits it had already sent out to state public‐​health laboratories, according to the agency and public‐​health officials.

Jeffrey Singer discusses coronavirus testing failures here.