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The supply chain fiasco that has derailed COVID-19 testing in the U.S.

As states mull when to lift pandemic restrictions and reopen, the question of testing for COVID-19 remains a critical one. In much of the country, testing capabilities have not kept up with demand, and health experts and epidemiologists say broader testing is a prerequisite for easing limits on Americans' activities. William Brangham joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the key shortages at play.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we heard in the interview with Vice President Pence, as states consider when to loosen restrictions, the lack of sufficient testing for COVID-19 remains a central issue.

    In many places, testing capability has not kept up with the larger demand. And the most recent statistics seem to show that, if anything, the number of tests analyzed by commercial labs has dropped lately.

    William Brangham has been reporting on all of this, and he joins me now.

    William, hello.

    We heard the vice president say, right now, testing capacity is about 120,000 per day. He said that that could be doubled. But does that come close to meeting the demand, what's needed?

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, in a word, no.

    There's no epidemiologist or public health official that I have spoken to who would say that we're testing anywhere near enough people to really meet this moment that we are in.

    I mean, even the most generous assessment, we are off by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of tests that are still needed. The issue here is that we simply don't know the current scale of the epidemic, and we can't be smart about fighting it until we test more people.

    We just don't know, right now, how many people are infected. Where are they? Who are they? And until those things — let's say that you're a restaurant owner, a factory owner, the owner of an NBA basketball team, and your governor says, we want to start bringing people back together.

    How do you start to do that if you really can't tell who in the general population is infected and who is not?

    So, it's a recipe for more outbreaks, according to all the public health officials I have spoken to, unless we get testing ramped up. It's — many people have referred to it, testing is the way that you see an epidemic and get your eyes on it.

    And, right now, we are largely blind.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we have heard a lot of reasons for why this is. Based on your reporting, what's the major holdup or holdups?

  • William Brangham:

    There are a slew of reasons why we have lagged behind on testing.

    There was initially just this very slow federal response to urge manufacturers and testing companies to get kits together. The CDC then rolled out its own test. That had major mechanical problems that delayed things.

    Now the problem we have is a shortage of supplies, the actual physical supplies that you need to conduct tests. So those are the swabs that you see people having put in the back of their throat or in their nose. Those are in short supply.

    The chemical reagents — these are the actual chemicals ingredients needed to run these tests — those are also in short supply.

    I spoke earlier with Dr. Eric Blank, with the Association of Public Health Laboratories. And he said that this supply chain problem has been an enormous issue and that, one week, it's the swabs are short of supply, the next week, it's the reagents.

    He also pointed out as well that we simply don't have enough trained people to do these tests. You don't have to be a doctor to do it, but you or I are not qualified to go out there and start testing people.

    So, we need more of those people trained, and those people also need protective gear. And we know that there's an incredible shortage of those.

    So, again, it's just a compounding series of problems. And someone referred to this, that our inability to get testing right has been the original sin of this epidemic in America, and this continues to be a huge problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, William, I did ask the vice president about why the federal government hasn't been more aggressive in all of this.

    And I think one of the questions is, why not push companies to address these shortages you're describing?

  • William Brangham:

    That's exactly right. That's an argument many people are making, that they argue that the president could have used the Defense Production Act to push companies to manufacture some of those ingredients and testing supplies right here in United States.

    And if they had done that, we might be facing far fewer shortages than we are right now.

    I saw that you asked the vice president talked about that, and it seems the administration doesn't really want to touch that particular issue.

    There have been a few occasions when the president has gotten involved, and those have, unfortunately, yielded some broken promises. We saw a month ago the president said, anyone who wants to get a test can get one. We know that's not true.

    A week or so after that, he said Google would set up a Web site that would direct people to find tests. That has not happened.

    Last month, the president also convened a group of retailers and drugstore owners and implied that there would be a huge network of drive-through testing sites across the country. Right now, there are only about — I think it's about a dozen. So, again, we're still lagging.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, William, we know there are some other countries that did do testing more aggressively. What do we know about the results?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, there are two — there's many examples that people point to, two nations in particular, Germany and South Korea.

    Both of those nations came on very strong with early testing. And we're seeing the results of that. They have gotten their hands around their epidemic earlier. They are further along. They're doing a better job of testing people and then tracing who those infected people were in contact with.

    So, again, it's worth noting both of those countries, those efforts were largely organized by their federal governments. And that, for the most part, has not been our approach here in the U.S.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    William Brangham, very, very helpful reporting.

    Thank you so much.

  • William Brangham:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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