Health and Science

Millions of 'easy-to-use' coronavirus tests will be available by end of summer, top US health official says

Key Points
  • The U.S. will work with companies to make millions of "accurate and easy-to-use" coronavirus tests by the end of the summer, and even more before the flu season, the head of the NIH said Thursday.
  • "I must tell you, senators, this is a stretch goal that goes beyond what most experts think will be possible," NIH Director Francis Collins said during a Senate committee hearing.
  • The tests must be reliable and have a user-friendly design, use various types of samples, integrate with mobile devices, transmit data seamlessly and be accessible to everyone who needs them, he added.
Nurses work at a drive-thru testing site for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, U.S., May 6, 2020.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

The U.S. will work with companies to make millions of "accurate and easy-to-use" coronavirus tests by the end of the summer, and even more before the flu season, as states ease social distancing measures and Americans head back to work, the head of the National Institutes of Health said Thursday.

"I must tell you, senators, this is a stretch goal that goes beyond what most experts think will be possible," NIH Director Francis Collins said during a hearing Thursday with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

"I have encountered some stunned expressions when describing these goals and this timetable to knowledgeable individuals. The scientific and logistical challenges are truly daunting," he said, adding he's optimistic. 

Most current testing for Covid-19 requires technology available only in laboratory settings and needs personnel who know how to run the test and troubleshoot problems, Collins said in prepared remarks submitted before the hearing.

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NIH's Francis Collins on testing initiatives underway

Americans need coronavirus tests "that do not require hours or days to determine results," Collins told U.S. lawmakers, adding the new types of tests "need to be sensitive enough to flag asymptomatic individuals who have just become infected but may not know it."

They must be reliable and have a user-friendly design, use various types of samples, integrate with mobile devices, transmit data seamlessly and be accessible to everyone who needs them, he added.

"Such tests sound like science fiction but are scientifically possible," he said.

Last week, the NIH asked scientists to develop rapid coronavirus testing technologies in a bid to scale up the availability of tests across the U.S. 

Early-stage technologies that look promising will initially move to phase one testing, where NIH will make a modest award of funds while simultaneously supporting an inventor or company with technical and clinical experts, Collins said. 

U.S. officials and corporations across America are pouring money into testing, hoping it will give people the confidence to return to work and reopen parts of the economy. 

President Donald Trump has recommended states ramp up testing as they start relaxing some of the strict social distancing measures imposed to combat the pandemic, which has infected more than 1.2 million people and killed at least 73,431 across the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Early in the outbreak, the U.S. fell behind on testing, conducting far fewer tests per capita than countries such as South Korea. It has since increased the number of tests to around 200,000 to 300,000 each day, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

Some experts say America needs to perform 20 million to 30 million tests a day to begin getting the economy back to normal.