US faces 'truly daunting' challenges on needed COVID tests

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National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins puts on his face mask after a Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on new coronavirus tests on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 7, 2020. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

WASHINGTON – Despite a massive effort, the nation faces “truly daunting” challenges to deploy millions of coronavirus tests to safely re-open the economy, the head of the National Institutes of Health told lawmakers Thursday.

NIH Director Francis Collins told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee that government and private industry have launched a $2.5 billion, taxpayer-funded effort to develop, manufacture and distribute technology capable of accurately testing millions of people a week by the end of the summer or the fall, before the annual flu season.

Widespread availability of testing is seen as critical to reopening the economy because it would allow public health officials to identify and contain a rebound of the virus. It remains a high bar to clear.

“I must tell you, senators, that this is a stretch goal that goes well beyond what most experts think will be possible,” Collins said. “I have encountered some stunned expressions when describing these goals and this timetable to knowledgeable individuals. The scientific and logistical challenges are truly daunting.”

Nonetheless, Collins said "the track record of American ingenuity” gives him optimism. More than three months into the epidemic, the lack of testing is widely acknowledged as a central failing in the nation's response.

The issue has dogged the White House for weeks. President Donald Trump takes credit for the fact that testing has ramped up dramatically since the early days of the outbreak, when a test from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ran into numerous problems.

But sometimes he also seems uneasy about testing.

“We do, by far, the most testing,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “If we did very little testing, we wouldn’t have the most cases. So, in a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad.”