Washington Post investigation outlines scientists’ frustrations in the early days of the pandemic, as they worked to deploy laboratory-developed tests for the novel coronavirus

In the wake of the failed rollout of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) COVID-19 diagnostic test last February, many CLIA-certified academic and public health laboratories were ready, and had the necessary resources, to develop their own coronavirus molecular diagnostic tests to help meet the nationwide demand for clinical laboratory testing. However, the response from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was, in essence, “not so fast.”

In this second part of Dark Daily’s two-part e-briefing, we continue our coverage of the Washington Post (WP) investigation that detailed the regulatory hurdles which blocked private laboratories from deploying their own laboratory-developed tests (LDTs) for COVID-19. The report is based on previously unreported email messages and other documents reviewed by the WP, as well as the newspaper’s exclusive interviews with scientists and officials involved.

CDC ‘Health Emergency’ Declaration Stifled Laboratory-Developed Tests

The CDC’s COVID-19 test kits began arriving at public health laboratories on February 8, just 18 days after the first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed in the US. As the WP noted in an earlier analysis, titled, “What Went Wrong with Coronavirus Testing in the US,” the CDC’s decision to develop its own test was not surprising. “The CDC will develop [its] own test that is suited to an American healthcare context and the regulations that exist here,” explained Jeremy Konyndyk, Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development. “That’s how we normally would do things.”

But state and local public health laboratories quickly discovered that the CDC test kits were flawed due to problems with one of the reagents. While numerous academic, research, and commercial labs had the capability to produce their own COVID-19 PCR tests, FDA rules initially prevented them from doing so without a federal Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

The bureaucratic hurdles arose due to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s January 31 declaration that COVID-19 was a “health emergency” in the US. By doing so, HHS triggered a mandate that requires CLIA-certified labs at universities, research centers, and hospitals to seek an EUA from the FDA before deploying any laboratory-developed tests.

Scientists, Clinical Laboratories Frustrated by Bureaucratic Delays and Red Tape

To make matters worse, the EUA process was neither simple nor fast, which exasperated lab scientists and clinical laboratory administrators. “In their private communications, scientists at academic, hospital, and public health labs—one layer removed from federal agency operations—expressed dismay at the failure to move more quickly, and frustration at bureaucratic demands that delayed their attempts to develop alternatives to the CDC test,” wrote the WP investigators.

In a Feb. 27 email to other microbiologists, Marc Couturier, PhD, Medical Director at ARUP Laboratories, a national reference laboratory network located in Utah, voiced his irritation with the red tape that stymied private laboratory development of COVID-19 tests. He wrote, “We have the skills and resources as a community, but we are collectively paralyzed by a bloated bureaucratic/administrative process,” reported the WP.

Keith Jerome, MD, PhD (above), Head of the Virology Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, maintains federal regulations muted one of the nation’s greatest assets in the fight against COVID-19. “The great strength the US has always had, not just in virology, is that we’ve always had a wide variety of people and groups working on any given problem,” he told MIT Technology Review. “When we decided all coronavirus testing had to be done by a single entity, even one as outstanding as CDC, we basically gave away our greatest strength.” (Photo copyright: Jonathan Hamilton/NPR.)

‘FDA Should Not Treat Labs Like They Are Creating Commercial Products’

Perhaps no scientist was more frustrated by the bureaucratic runaround than Alex Greninger, MD, PhD, a clinical pathologist and Assistant Professor at the University of Washington. Greninger is Assistant Director of the UW’s clinical virology laboratory, which had begun developing a test for the novel coronavirus as soon as the World Health Organization (WHO) China Country Office reported that it had been “informed” about the emergence in China of a “pneumonia of unknown cause.”

According to Kaiser Health News (KHN), Greninger was able to identify one of the nation’s first cases of community-acquired COVID-19 by taking “advantage of a regulatory loophole that allowed the lab to test samples obtained for research purposes from UW’s hospitals.”

But navigating the EUA process was a different story, Greninger told the WP. He spent more than 100 hours filling out forms and collecting information needed for the EUA application. After emailing the application to the FDA, Greninger received a reply containing eCopy Guidance telling him he needed to resubmit the information to the Document Control Center (DCC) at the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), a federal agency Greninger knew nothing about. Another FDA rule required that the submission be copied to a hard disk and mailed to the DCC.

In an interview with ProPublica, Greninger stated that after he submitted his COVID-19 test—which copies the CDC protocol—an FDA reviewer told him he would need to prove the test would not show a positive result for someone infected with either a SARS or MERS coronavirus. The first SARS coronavirus disappeared in mid-2003 and the only two cases of MERS in the US were diagnosed in 2014. Greninger told ProPublica it took him two days to locate a clinical laboratory that could provide the materials he needed.

Greninger maintains the FDA should not treat all clinical laboratories as though they are making a commercial product. “I think it makes sense to have this regulation when you’re going to sell 100,000 widgets across the US. That’s not who we are,” he told ProPublica.

FDA Changes Course

Under pressure from clinical laboratory scientists and medical doctors, by the end of February the FDA had issued new policy that enabled CLIA-certified laboratories to immediately use their validated COVID-19 diagnostics while awaiting an EUA. “This policy change was an unprecedented action to expand access to testing,” said the FDA in a statement.

Since then, the FDA has continued to respond—albeit slowly—to scientists’ complaints about regulations that hampered the nation’s COVID-19 testing capacity.

Clinical laboratory leaders and pathologists involved in testing for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus should monitor the FDA’s actions and be aware of when and if certain temporary changes the agency implemented during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic become permanent.

To read part one of our two-part coverage of the Washington Post’s investigation, click here.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Inside the Coronavirus Testing Failure: Alarm and Dismay among the Scientists who Sought to Help

Contamination at CDC Lab Delayed Rollout of Coronavirus Tests

Pneumonia of Unknown Cause–China

How Intrepid Lab Sleuths Ramped Up Tests as Coronavirus Closed In

Key Missteps at the CDC Have Set Back Its Ability to Detect the Potential Spread of Coronavirus

Why the CDC Botched Its Coronavirus Testing

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Issues New Policy to Help Expedite Availability of Diagnostics

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Expedites Review of Diagnostic Tests to Combat COVID-19