Biden admin preps for next pandemic as Delta variant surges

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Now, halfway through the second year of the pandemic, the Biden administration has shaken up the leadership of the federal testing response. Michael Iademarco, who led HHS’ Covid-19 testing and diagnostic working group for the past seven months, is returning to CDC. Dean Winslow, a professor of medicine at Stanford University with expertise in infectious diseases, is taking charge of the working group, which has been instrumental in planning Biden’s school testing efforts.

Jay Butler, the CDC’s deputy director of infectious diseases, has been deployed to HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response to help plan the government’s Covid-19 testing strategy as the pandemic evolves.

“This is a sign of how seriously we take testing issues now and also to be thinking about the future and building the infrastructure we need for testing to prepare for the next pandemic,” the HHS official said. “Fortunately, right now, it looks like our vaccine is very effective against variants, but we don’t know what will happen in the future. So we are going to need a very robust testing strategy and execution of that strategy through the end of this pandemic.”

The federal government is exploring ways to ensure the public-private partnerships that have been developed during the pandemic do not end when the current crisis does.

“In terms of financial arrangements, we are exploring what does industry need to be ready, much more ready, for infectious disease emergencies before the next pandemic,” the HHS official said. “A lot of the experience over the last year has created an industrial base expansion program.”

Maintaining a stockpile of testing supplies — such as swabs, reagents or tubes to transport patient samples — appears to be one area of interest.

“We are examining and talking to industry about the best way to make industry ready in as short a time as possible” at the beginning of a future pandemic, the HHS official said.

The government is also trying to incentivize companies to develop at-home diagnostic tests that can test for multiple respiratory viruses, including Covid-19, at the same time. While the U.S. recorded virtually no flu cases during the 2020-21 flu season, public health labs are already preparing for the potential reemergence of flu this fall and winter alongside regional outbreaks of Covid-19, Becker said. That could prove tricky for doctors, because the early symptoms of the two diseases can be similar.

The NIH is leading the federal charge to support development of new and better Covid-19 tests through its venture-like Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics program. It is set to hand out another $100 million to support commercialization of new testing technologies before the end of 2021, said Bruce Tromberg, the NIH scientist leading the initiative.