This week the Biden administration announced that they are making free home tests and “high quality” masks available, to help curb the omicron surge. So far, they have purchased 1 billion tests, and plan to distribute the first 500 million through a new website (COVIDTest.gov) starting January 19th. Each household will be able to request up to four tests. Additionally, starting January 15th, the White House will require private insurance companies to provide free tests to the insured, and the reimbursement of tests bought over the counter. They also announced plans to distribute N95 masks next week. But this doesn’t even scratch the surface of what is needed, and it’s much less than has been done elsewhere.
In the U.K. home tests were made available for free in April. They can be delivered or picked up in local pharmacies. Similar programs exist throughout Europe. In most places, if they aren’t free, the same tests cost half the price. The reason tests cost so much less outside the U.S. is, in part, due to government mandated price caps, but also, in part, because many more companies have been approved to produce them. In the U.S. the FDA has rejected or delayed the approval of several viable at home tests, with the exception of two companies, Abbott and Quidel Corporation. Timothy Stenzel, a former employee of both corporations and current director of the FDA office which authorizes diagnostic tests, allowed them to dominate the market and charge higher prices. But Stenzel is just part of the problem.
The reason that free or affordable tests and masks haven’t been available in the U.S. until now is the same reason we’ve been stuck in this COVID crisis – this system prioritizes profits above health and safety. For years we’ve known what is needed to stop the spread of this virus. Biden’s administration claimed it would take swift and bold action to combat the pandemic, but since he’s been in office all we’ve seen is the opposite. Providing people with masks and testing immediately could have changed everything, but instead infection rates are soaring again, and hospitals are overwhelmed. Providing a few masks and tests at this point is too little too late.