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In A Breakthrough, Food And Drug Administration Approves New Coronavirus Test


President Donald Trump today announced that Americans who need a test for the coronavirus will soon be able to get one through a drive-through sampling center. This long-awaited testing program is finally possible because the Food and Drug Administration today approved a test that can process many samples at once. Joining us with the latest on this is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

Hey, Richard.


CHANG: All right. So for the past few weeks, we've been hearing that mass-scale coronavirus testing was going to happen any day now. Is it finally happening?

HARRIS: Well, no promises, but I can say it seems likelier now than it was before. You may recall that two weeks ago, they boasted that a contractor for the Centers for Disease Control produced enough test kits to run a million tests. But the totals still run in the thousands, so those clearly didn't solve any problem. And then last week, we learned that two lab giants, LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics, would be able to process sample swabs sent in from doctors and hospitals around the country. But apparently, their testing capacity this week was something like 1,000 a day. So as a result, we keep hearing those stories from patients and doctors pleading for tests and being turned away.

CHANG: All right, so then tell us more about this latest announcement.

HARRIS: Well, that came today at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden. President Trump said people who had symptoms consistent with the coronavirus would have free access to a test.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We want to make sure that those who need a test can get a test very safely, quickly and conveniently, but we don't want people to take a test if we feel that they shouldn't be doing it. And we don't want everyone running out and taking it - only if you have certain symptoms.

HARRIS: And this is finally possible because the FDA today approved a test from the Swiss company Roche which can process many samples simultaneously and quickly through the company's highly automated instruments. And I should add more companies are also prepared to offer similar tests of their own.

CHANG: OK. So from the patient's point of view, what is this supposed to look like?

HARRIS: That's not entirely clear. Right now the CDC says anyone can get a test if a doctor deems it medically necessary, but as Vice President Mike Pence described the system, the bar seems even lower than that. They're developing a website that's supposed to be available on Sunday, Pence explained.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: You'll type in your symptoms and be given direction whether or not a test is indicated. And then at the same website, you'll be directed to one of these incredible companies that are going to give a little bit of their parking lot so that people can come by and do a drive-by test.

CHANG: Sounds so easy.

HARRIS: Yeah, I know. And these centers are supposed to be in the corner of parking lots of Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and other drugstores. The exact sites have not been announced, but medical technicians will take a nose and throat sample, which will then be sent off to LabCorp or Quest Diagnostics, where they can get analyzed.

CHANG: And how soon do you get the results?

HARRIS: Well, the hope is to get those results in 24 hours as opposed to three or four days, which is currently the turnaround time for these commercial labs. As the system works now, the lab is also supposed to report the names of people who test positive to local health authorities so they can help stop the spread of the virus.

CHANG: All right. So when can we expect to see this whole system up and running?

HARRIS: Nobody has made any promises, but the hope is to roll it out initially next week. My expectation is it's clearly going to take quite a bit longer to get it going at full capacity.

CHANG: That is NPR's Richard Harris.

Thank you, Richard.

HARRIS: Pleased to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.