Previously unreported email messages and documents paint vivid picture of public health laboratory officials’ dismay and frustration over testing delays

Between late January and early March, Clinical laboratory leaders watched with dismay as federal government missteps crippled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) rollout of its COVID-19 diagnostic testing in the early days of the pandemic. The resulting lack of testing capacity enabled the novel coronavirus’ spread across the United States.

This first part of Dark Daily’s two-part e-briefing covers how investigators at the Washington Post (WP) have produced a timeline describing the CDC initial failure to produce a reliable laboratory test for COVID-19 and the regulatory hurdles that blocked medical laboratories from developing their own tests for the virus. The WP’s report is based on previously unreleased email messages and other documents reviewed by the WP, as well as the newspaper’s exclusive interviews with medical laboratory scientists and officials involved.

A New York Times report on the federal government’s initial review of the testing kit failure pinned the blame on sloppy practices at CDC laboratories in Atlanta and a lack of expertise in commercial manufacturing. However, the WP reported that COVID-19 testing kits were delayed due to a “glaring scientific breakdown” at the central lab, created when the CDC facilities that assembled the kits “violated sound manufacturing practices” that resulted in cross contamination of testing compounds.

A US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) investigation into the COVID-19 testing crisis is under way, however the HHS is not expected to release its report until 2021.

How Did We Get Here?

The US and other countries have criticized China for a lack of transparency about the virus’ emergence, which came to light on December 31, 2019, when China reported a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) timeline. A week later, Chinese authorities identified the pneumonia-like illness as being caused by a new novel coronavirus.

In the US, the first case of COVID-19 was found January 21 in a Washington State man who had traveled to Wuhan. But in the weeks that followed, the US government’s inability to establish a systematic testing policy became the catalyst for the virus’ ultimate spread to more than two million people, notes the CDC website.

ProPublica, which conducted its own investigation into the early stages of the government’s coronavirus response, blamed the failures on “chaos” at the CDC and “an antiquated public health system trying to adapt on the fly.”

The CDC’s first mistake may have been underestimating the danger COVID-19 posed to public health in this country. During a January 15 conference call, CDC scientists assured state and county public health officials that the agency was developing a COVID-19 diagnostic test which soon would be available, but which may not be needed “unless the scope gets much larger than we anticipate right now,” reported the WP.

A week later, an interview with CNBC, President Trump said, “We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

CDC scientists designed their test in seven days, which, according to the WP investigators, is “a stunningly short period of time for a healthcare system built around the principles of medical quality and patient safety, not speed.” But when those initial CDC-made tests arrived at a New York City public health laboratory on February 8, lab technicians discovered the COVID-19 assays often indicated the presence of the coronavirus in samples that the lab’s scientists knew did not contain the virus.

When the scientists informed Lab Director Jennifer Rakeman, PhD, Assistant Commissioner, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, her response, according to the WP, was “Oh, s—. What are we going to do now?”

That night, Director Jill Taylor, PhD, Director of New York State’s Wadsworth Center public health reference laboratory, emailed state health officials, stating, “There is a technical problem in one of the reagents which invalidates the assay and will not allow us to perform the assay,” reported the WP. “I’m sorry not to have better news.”

Scott Becker (above), Executive Director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), voiced his concerns about the CDC’s flawed COVID-19 test kits in an email to a CDC official, reported the WP. “The states and their governors are going to come unglued,” Becker wrote, adding, “If the CDC doesn’t get ahead of this, it will be a disaster.” (Photo copyright: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post.)

‘The Silence from CDC is Deafening’

On February 10, Joanne Bartkus, PhD, then-Lab Director of the Minnesota Health of Department, wrote to APHL Executive Director Scott Becker: “The silence from CDC … is deafening. What is going on?” reported the WP.

By the end of February, the Associated Press (AP) reported that only 472 patients had been tested for COVID-19 nationwide. By comparison, South Korea, which identified its first case of COVID-19 on the same day as the US, was testing 1,000 people per day.

A WHO spokesperson told the WP that, “… no discussions occurred between WHO and CDC (or other US government agencies) about WHO providing COVID-19 tests to the US.” When the CDC’s original COVID-19 test kit failed, there may not have been a Plan B. This may explain why the opportunity to contain COVID-19 through surveillance testing was lost during the weeks it took to design a fix for the CDC test and loosen regulations so clinical laboratories could develop their own tests.

As medical laboratory scientists and clinical laboratory leaders know, the lack of early COVID-19 testing was a public health failure and painted a false picture of the virus’ spread. Nearly five months after the first case of the virus was confirmed in the US, testing capacity may only now be outpacing demand.

We will continue our coverage of this timeline in part-two.

—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

CDC Labs Were Contaminated, Delaying Coronavirus Testing, Officials Say

Audit of HHS’s Production and Distribution of COVID-19 Lab Test Kits

Internal Emails Show How Chaos at the CDC Slowed the Early Response to Coronavirus

Trump Says He Trusts China Xi on Coronavirus and the US Has it ‘Totally under Control’