CDC missteps could harm ability to track, detect coronavirus in US

"You shed virus before you are symptomatic, so it’s already out of the bag... It’s going to spread," and “the kits that were sent to us... cannot be relied on" – health officials.

A swab to be used for testing novel coronavirus (photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID RYDER)
A swab to be used for testing novel coronavirus
(photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID RYDER)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may have harmed the country's ability to track and detect the spread of the COVID-19 disease due to a series of missteps, including refusing to use the tests recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to ProPublica.
As the virus began to spread, the CDC decided to start creating its own, more complicated test instead of using the test guidelines provided by the WHO. The test was made to check for a variety of different viruses. When the test was sent to labs across the country, it didn't work and falsely flagged the presence of other viruses in harmless samples.
Until Wednesday, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only allowed state labs to use the CDC's test. As a result, local officials didn't carry out "surveillance tests" of hundreds of people in possible hot spots, a crucial first step when coping with a possible outbreak.
Scott Becker, chief executive officer of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, told ProPublica that they're "weeks behind" because of the issue. "We’re usually up-front and center and ready."
While the CDC announced on February 14 that surveillance testing would begin in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, the testing had yet to begin as of Friday.
Starting Wednesday, the CDC and FDA began allowing labs to use the test only to check for the presence of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, instead of searching for all SARS-like coronaviruses. Some local labs have raised concern's about the tests' reliability to detect COVID-19, as scientists in New York have received false positives, even when following the CDC's latest directions, according to the New York-based investigative newsroom.
“Testing for coronavirus is not available yet in New York City,” city Health Department spokeswoman Stephanie Buhle said in an email to ProPublica late Thursday. “The kits that were sent to us have demonstrated performance issues and cannot be relied upon to provide an accurate result.”
Seventy confirmed cases of the coronavirus have been reported in the United States. One person has died due to the disease in Seattle, Washington. Many public health experts and officials believe that without wider testing, the true number of infected Americans remains unknown.
Janet Hamilton, senior director of policy and science at the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, stressed that now is the time for widespread surveillance testing. “The disease is moving faster than the data.”
The delay in producing a working test could have devastating effects. If the US has dodged the rapidly spreading outbreaks affecting some countries, such as Iran and South Korea, then the impact should be negligible. However, if the disease is currently circulating undetected in communities across the country, then health official have missed a valuable chance to lessen the harm caused by the disease.
As of Saturday, at least two patients in California were confirmed as having the coronavirus without traveling to affected areas or being exposed to someone with the illness, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Definitely we will have more cases here,” said Peter Beilenson, Sacramento County’s director of health services, according to the Times. “You shed virus before you are symptomatic, so it’s already out of the bag in a lot of ways. It’s going to spread, it’s just going to spread.”
Officials in Oregon and Washington state have detected new cases of COVID-19 that appeared to be instances of "community spread" where the source of the infection is unknown.
Testing for coronavirus has been further inhibited by restrictive CDC testing criteria, which limited tests only to symptomatic patients who recently traveled to China. The guidelines have since been updated. The man who died of the coronavirus in Seattle was not originally eligible for testing. Dozens of people may be quarantined in areas north of San Francisco due to just one patient who was not tested for several days and was transferred between two hospitals.
Because the CDC has declared the coronavirus a public health emergency, all tests must follow a set of federal rules and must be validated with the FDA. The validation process has been described as onerous and time-wasting, and has prevented local authorities from conducting testing in their communities. The FDA announced an "accelerated policy" on Saturday allowing academic hospital labs capable of performing high-quality testing to develop and begin using their own tests to detect COVID-19, according to ProPublica.
The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, began tests of remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed for Ebola, on a passenger from the Diamond Princess cruise ship who was infected with the coronavirus – as well as preparing a vaccine for human testing, according to Time magazine.
Others diagnosed with COVID-19 will also take part in the study.
Remdesivir showed encouraging results among animals infected with two related coronaviruses, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), according to Time.
Some 691 people were infected with the coronavirus on the Diamond Princess, which was docked south of Tokyo, according to Reuters. Four passengers have died.
Moderna Therapeutics, a biotech company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has shipped the first batches of its COVID-19 vaccine to the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which will prepare it for human testing as early as April, according to Time.
The new vaccine was made just 42 days after the genetic sequence of the virus was released by Chinese researchers with a new method that allows the vaccine can be scaled up quickly. The vaccine is filled with mRNA, the genetic material that comes from DNA and makes proteins, which codes for the right coronavirus proteins. Immune cells can process that mRNA and start making the protein in the right way for other immune cells to recognize and mark for destruction.
Some 86,583 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. In addition, 2,975 people have died due to the disease and 42,009 patients have recovered.
Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.