Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate today to support the journalism you rely on!

Supplies Sent To Labs By Trump Administration To Boost Testing Are Not Always Helpful


The coronavirus has now killed at least 120,000 people in the United States. And in 26 states, the number of cases this week is not falling. It's going up. The U.S. does lead the world in the raw number of coronavirus tests but is behind some other countries in testing per capita. The Trump administration has been trying to boost testing by shipping crucial supplies needed to do the tests, but it turns out those supplies have not always been very helpful. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is with us now.

Hi, Rob.


MCCAMMON: So what supplies are we talking about?

STEIN: So one of the supplies are the swabs, you know, those things that look like long Q-Tips used to swab inside the nose. The other is what's called transport media. Those are vials of chemicals that keep the sample fresh while it's being transported to a lab. Swabs and transport media have become like gold since the pandemic began because they're so hard to get, and that's been causing big problems doing enough testing. So the Trump administration started shipping them to labs around the country.

MCCAMMON: And what's the problem then?

STEIN: Well, let's start with the swabs. There've been several problems. One is big boxes of swabs have been showing up in labs in bulk packages. Here's how Bill Whitmar, the president of the Association for Public Health Laboratories, describes the problem that causes.

BILL WHITMAR: Instead of having an individual swab in a sterile sleeve - and you can hear the sleeve on this one - these swabs are sent to us in boxes of 180 swabs in a box not individually wrapped. If we're going to use these swabs to swab patients, one after the next, you're having to reach inside a box to grab swab after swab after swab, potentially contaminating the swabs that are inside this box.

STEIN: So Whitmar says he's got thousands of these swabs just sitting in boxes in a warehouse while labs are still scrambling every day to get enough swabs to test people. And that's just one problem. There's an entirely different problem with another swab. Let's listen to what he said about that.

WHITMAR: In the case of the one I'm holding in my hand right now, the shaft is too long. This type of swab that we really like to see has a scoring around the shaft so that when you place the swab into the tube, the nurse can break the shaft of the swab and the swab fits neatly inside. And off we go - the tube and the swab can go to the laboratory. But as it stands with this particular swab, I am wiggling back and forth, and I am unable to break the shaft off.

MCCAMMON: So a range of problems with these test swabs, Rob - is that all?

STEIN: No, there's another problem with the kind of transport media the federal government has been shipping to labs. It contains a chemical that can produce cyanide gas, which can be deadly when it comes into contact with bleach. And one of the testing machines uses bleach to clean itself, so that could obviously be a big problem. In fact, one lab in Rhode Island had to call in a hazmat team when they realized they had used this transport media on a sample collected from a nursing home. Here's David Peaper from Yale, which is associated with that lab.

DAVID PEAPER: It obviously was not good. It should have been avoided in the first place. Fortunately, no one was injured. But, you know, I think it was a near miss.

MCCAMMON: And what is the Trump administration saying about all this?

STEIN: I asked Adm. Brett Giroir about the swab problems. He's the Trump administration's testing czar. And he basically dismissed their complaints as kind of bellyaching.

BRETT GIROIR: Now, yes, there are some labs that say, I would prefer a different type of swab. We are not in a menu situation where everyone can have filet mignon on the menu. You're going to have to have the chicken dish or the salmon because we do not have all of a single type of swab. If you want the custom flocked swab from Italy, you're not going to get that because, No. 1, there's not enough to go around. There's not a global supply.

STEIN: So, you know, that's the administration's view. Bill Whitmar - when I talked to him about this, he said, look; you know, we understand there can be problems in the rush to get enough testing. But, you know, he's worried that if you start to compromise quality enough, it could really start to affect the accuracy of the tests. And then, you know, when you're trying to control a major pandemic like this, the testing could become part of the problem not part of the solution.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

Thank you.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.