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Senators question if COVID-19 'Shark Tank' contest too late for US testing needs

SNL ImageThe U.S. will not be able to reopen and reboot the nation's economy until millions of more tests are available for Americans scared to venture out into the unknown of who may have COVID-19, Republican and Democratic senators said.

"All roads back to work and back to school lead through testing," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said during a May 7 hearing. Some senators attended the session in person on Capitol Hill, while others tuned in remotely via a video platform from their homes or offices.

Even though the U.S. has been ramping up its testing capacity in recent weeks, "tens of millions of tests — many more than our current technologies can produce" — will be needed before COVID-19 can be contained and Americans are confident it is safe to leave their homes, Alexander said.

He noted that U.S. taxpayers are investing $1.5 billion into a new project in which innovators will be competing for government funds to help them develop their at-home and point-of-care diagnostic tests for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics, or RADx, initiative, run by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is based on ABC's reality TV show "Shark Tank," where a panel of entrepreneurial investors — "sharks" — decide if they want to fund an innovator's product.

Lawmakers allocated another $1 billion to the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, to work with the NIH to accelerate production of the tests, Alexander said.

While welcoming the innovation, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member on the committee, criticized the Trump administration for lacking a national testing plan.

"You can innovate the fastest car in the world — it still won't get you where you're going without a good driver and good directions," Murray said, speaking via video from her home in Washington state. "When it comes to testing, this administration has had no map and no one at the wheel."

"No matter how innovative our tests are, we can't reopen our country safely until they are fast, free and everywhere," she added.

Strong response

Since the NIH unveiled the RADx project April 29, the agency has received 1,087 applications, with 79 of those now completed, NIH Director Francis Collins told the senators.

"In 27 years at NIH, I have honestly never seen anything move this quickly," Collins said, adding that he was "somewhat astounded" by the innovators' response.

He said the expert review team had identified 20 of the completed applications that are ready to move into the intense scrutiny phase.

"And the game is on, and it's going to be a wild ride," Collins said.

But Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Trump was too slow in engaging the private sector and launching the RADx competition, noting that it came after COVID-19 had been spreading in the U.S. since January.

"If we had a president who truly prioritized testing, this effort would have been launched the minute we heard about the prospect of coronavirus coming to the United States," Murphy said.

Trump's delay in creating innovative diagnostics "was no accident," given that once more Americans are tested, the numbers of cases will rise, the Connecticut senator said.

Murphy noted that on May 6, Trump said, "By doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad."

Ex-BARDA chief

Murphy was among the lawmakers at the hearing who raised concerns about the abrupt transfer to the NIH — a move some are calling a firing — of Rick Bright, who was ousted April 21 from his post as BARDA director.

In a whistleblower complaint, Bright accused his bosses in the Trump administration of putting political connections and cronyism over science in awarding contracts to biopharmaceutical companies.

Bright said his involuntary removal was retaliation for pushing back against Trump promoting unproven drugs to treat COVID-19 — hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine.

"I do think it's important" to get to the bottom of the allegations, Gary Disbrow, the acting BARDA director, told Murphy.

Sen. Murray noted that she had sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar requesting certain records related to the administration's actions involving hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine.

On-hold research a 'heartache'

Also at the hearing, Collins said that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, about $10 billion in NIH-funded research "is going to disappear because of the way in which this virus has affected everybody requiring this kind of distancing and sending people home."

"I'm deeply concerned about that," he told the senators. "This is a heartache seeing the rest of the scientific enterprise pretty much put on hold. My own research laboratory has researchers who are at home trying to write papers and read literature, but they're not at the bench doing experiments they would be doing on diabetes or aging."