The National Institutes of Health announced Friday that it was awarding nearly $250 million in contracts to seven biomedical companies to develop new coronavirus tests as communities around the country face testing shortages, backlogs and long waits for results.
The companies are working on a mix of laboratory-based tests and point-of-care tests that aim to make testing cheaper, faster, and more efficient. The NIH selected them from a batch of more than 600 applications based largely on the promise of their technology and their ability to ramp up production quickly, officials said.
Officials said the contracts could increase nationwide testing by millions per week by the fall — with some companies expected to process 50,000 tests daily by the end of September — though they acknowledged the projection was optimistic.
“September is an extremely ambitious goal,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins said in a call with reporters, “but we do believe that the demand for testing will continue to rise.”
The contracts were awarded under NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics or RADx program, which the agency launched in late April under the emergency pandemic funding legislation passed by Congress, at a time when the federal government was struggling to expand testing capacity.
Currently, the United States administers 700,000 to 900,000 tests a day, an amount health experts say remains insufficient for containing the virus. Wait times have also stretched to a week or more in some places, effectively rendering tests useless in slowing transmission.
The NIH put 100 of the best concepts it received through a rigorous “shark tank” evaluation, then winnowed those candidates down, according to the agency. It said more than 20 companies could be considered for funding in the coming weeks.
“This is a very substantial investment to try to speed up the availability of COVID-19 testing to try to deal with this pandemic,” Collins said.
Report cites camp outbreak, says kids are susceptible
A new report suggests children of all ages are susceptible to coronavirus infections and may also spread it to others — a finding likely to intensify an already fraught discussion about the risks of sending children back to school this fall.
The report, released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, details an outbreak at a sleep-away camp in Georgia last month in which 260 children and staff — more than three-quarters of those tested — contracted the virus less than a week after spending time together in close quarters. The children had a median age of 12.
The camp had required all 597 campers and staff to provide documentation they had tested negative for the virus before coming. Staff were required to wear masks, but children were not.
While similar clusters have occurred around funerals, weddings, teenage parties, and adult gatherings throughout the pandemic, few super-spreading events have been documented among children.
The report will likely add fuel to an already polarizing nationwide discussion about whether sending children back to crowded school buildings is worth the risk, in large part because so little data has been available about children’s vulnerability to the infection and ability to transmit the virus.
‘‘To me, this is a significant weight added to the side of the scale that says close the schools,’’ said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California-Irvine. ‘‘At some places, that might tip the balance. You’re not adding one of those 1,000-ton anvils in the cartoons, but it’s solid evidence to suggest we should be extremely cautious about opening schools.’’
The Trump administration has pushed for schools to reopen in recent weeks, while many states and major cities — including the District of Columbia— have announced they will resume online only to begin the year. ‘‘I do say again, young people are almost immune to this disease. The younger the better,’’ President Trump said Thursday during a White House briefing. ‘‘They’re stronger. They have a stronger immune system.’’
Advocates of reopening schools for in-person instruction argue that early research shows children are less prone to infection and severe outcomes from the virus than adults. While data continues to support that idea, little had been known about the extent to which they could transmit it — particularly when they are not showing symptoms.
NYC schools announce strict reopening protocol
NEW YORK — A positive coronavirus test in a New York City school will trigger a two-week classroom shutdown under a reopening plan announced by the nation’s largest public school system.
If there is a single confirmed case, the entire classroom will self-quarantine for 14 days and receive instruction remotely under the plan released by Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday. If there are two confirmed cases in different classes, the entire school building will shut down while contact tracers investigate.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat like de Blasio, has said it is up to him to decide whether any of the state’s 700 school districts can open in September at all.
Friday was the deadline for districts including New York City’s to submit their reopening plans to the state.
Airbnb to crack down on rental houses in N.J.
TRENTON, N.J. — Airbnb said Friday it’s cracking down on party houses throughout New Jersey, suspending or removing altogether 35 listings, after state health officials warned house parties led to clusters of COVID-19 outbreaks.
“We ban party houses and will not tolerate irresponsible behavior on our platform,’’ Airbnb executive Chris Lehane said in a statement. “We know that there is still more work to be done, we ask that neighbors contact us as soon as possible through our Neighborhood Support Hotline, to directly communicate any concerns.”
Airbnb did not disclose the addresses of the 35 locations, but indicated they’re across the state, including Jersey City and Newark in the north, as well as a number of shore towns like Asbury Park, Atlantic City, and Ventnor, among others.
The crackdown comes just days after Democratic Governor Phil Murphy and Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli reported that large gatherings, particularly of younger people, across the state were leading to positive coronavirus tests.
“When there are hundreds of people crammed into a house where the air conditioning system is simply blowing the air around and where people are not wearing face coverings, you have also invited coronavirus to your party,” Murphy said.
Most notably, police said it took them five hours to break up a party at an Airbnb rental in Jackson that was attended by more than 700 people.