Focusing on tests, Biden pledges to fight Omicron with ‘science and speed’

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Much is still unknown about Omicron, which was spotted by scientists in southern Africa last week and is known to be present in more than 30 countries. It has mutations that scientists say can spread more quickly and cause more breakthrough infections in vaccinated or previously infected people, although neither trait has yet been confirmed.

Experts welcomed Mr Biden’s new emphasis on testing. dr. Michael Mina, a former Harvard University epidemiologist who has been a strong advocate for increased use of testing, said it could be used both as a medical tool to detect if someone is sick, and as a public health tool to help determine whether a person is contagious and a risk to others.

“Testing is one of the cornerstones of public health, especially in a pandemic,” said Dr. Mina, who is now the Chief Science Officer of eMed, a home testing company. “But for unknown reasons, we have mainly considered it a medical device.”

Under the president’s plan, home testing would be reimbursed for the 150 million Americans with private insurance starting early next year. To ensure access for people who are not insured or covered by Medicaid, the government plans to distribute an additional 25 million tests to community health centers and clinics nationwide, which usually treat lower-income patients.

Experts envision a world where people can test themselves as soon as they show symptoms — and then, if they’re positive, go into isolation and seek treatment with new antiviral drugs. Early testing is important because the antivirals work best just after symptoms start. The White House says it has ordered 13 million antiviral treatments. Two companies, Merck and Pfizer, are asking for an emergency license for their antiviral pills.

In the United States, home tests are relatively difficult to obtain due to a shortage of supply. dr. del Rio, of Emory University, said that instead of putting people through the cumbersome process of applying for insurance reimbursement for tests, “we should just subsidize them and make it incredibly cheap.”

In Britain, he noted, rapid tests are free, and in Germany they cost consumers about $1 each. In the United States, the tests are usually sold in packs of two, with prices ranging from $14 to $34.

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