Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Monday that the ability of the United States to detect new, more contagious coronavirus variants had increased tenfold, even as those efforts remain well behind levels experts have said are needed.
At a White House COVID-19 briefing, she said labs were aiming to sequence 7,000 samples of the virus per week, a significant increase from the week of Jan. 10, when she said that only 251 samples had been sequenced. Last week, 2,238 samples were sequenced for the virus mutations, she said.
The CDC’s system for sequencing the virus to detect mutations — nicknamed “NS3” — was still being scaled up with large commercial lab partners, who were analyzing 3,000 samples per week and had committed to analyze 6,000 per week by the middle of this month, Walensky said.
Those numbers, however, still appear to be inadequate for understanding how widely and quickly the variants are spreading as they threaten to sweep the nation. At around 1 million coronavirus cases per week in the United States, experts say that at least 1% of samples should be sequenced for variants, and that 5% is preferable, leaving the 6,000 number short of what is considered by some as a bare minimum.
Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, said last week that the nation’s global standing with its sequencing efforts was “totally unacceptable.”
As of Sunday, 471 cases of variants first identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil had been located in the United States, 467 of which were the variant found in Britain, Walensky said Monday.
She said the increase in sequencing activity was a “good start,” but that “more resources and capacity are needed to increase our country’s sequencing surveillance and outbreak analytics capacity at the levels demanded by this crisis.”
Andy Slavitt, a White House pandemic adviser, announced at the briefing Monday that the Department of Health and Human Services and Defense Department had finalized a $232 million contract with Australian company Ellume for its over-the-counter, at-home coronavirus antigen tests, which received emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration in December.
The company was ramping up manufacturing and planned to ship 100,000 test kits per month to the United States from February through July, Slavitt said, and would be able to produce 19 million test kits per month by the end of the year, 8.5 million of which would be guaranteed to go to the nation. The Defense Department said in a news release that the deal would increase domestic production of the tests by 640,000 tests per day by December.
The nasal swab test detects bits of coronavirus proteins called antigens and is slightly less sensitive than laboratory tests designed to look for coronavirus genetic material with a technique called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. It takes about 15 minutes, and results are reported on a smartphone app.
The cost of the test, at around $30 each, could be prohibitively expensive for some Americans who would want to use them regularly, a challenge Slavitt acknowledged.
Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the Biden administration’s COVID-19 health equity task force, also spoke at the briefing, displaying a chart that showed a substantial hole in race and ethnicity data collected for Americans who have been vaccinated so far — 47% of vaccinations were missing that data as of Jan. 30.
“We cannot ensure an equitable vaccination program without data to guide us,” she said.
She added that lack of federal coordination and an uneven rollout of the vaccine without enough emphasis on vaccinating equitably “don’t just hurt our statistics — they hurt the communities that are at the highest risk and have been the hardest hit.”
Black and Latino people are more likely to be affected by the virus than white people, and many communities of color have been hesitant or suspicious of taking the vaccine in light of the history of unethical medical research in the United States. Officials have stressed the importance of making vaccines accessible to underserved communities.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.