The government is sending free rapid tests, but don’t expect them all before omicron’s peak

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(WASHINGTON) — The Biden administration’s plan to send 500 million at-home tests to Americans for free is an historic undertaking, but one that will take weeks or months to fully execute, recently released contracts and interviews with seven test manufacturers suggest.

Contracts for the first two batches of tests were announced on Friday, one for 13.3 million kits from a health technology company and another for an undisclosed amount from a distribution company in Virginia that had extras on hand — all to be distributed in an effort to reduce the massive testing shortage in the U.S.

And while a White House official told ABC News that the rest of the contracts to fulfill the 500-million pledge are expected to be awarded in the next two weeks, the cumbersome process of ramping up test availability indicates that the plan won’t deliver a quick fix.

Tests won’t be available to be ordered through a government website until later this month, the official said, meaning it’s unlikely the average American will get free tests delivered in time for the January peak of omicron cases predicted by most models.

In the last week alone, the U.S. has reported more than 4.1 million new COVID-19 cases — the highest number of cases seen over the span of a week on record.

And as cases soar, tests have become increasingly vital for basic day-to-day needs, including keeping kids in school and employees in the workforce.

ABC News reached out to all 13 testing companies that have an FDA authorization for at-home test kits. In interviews with seven, including five of the largest producers, the testing companies said they were each producing anywhere from a few million to 200 million tests per month.

But that total supply is intended for all customers, including pharmacies and grocery stores, not solely for the government.

Dr. Michael Mina, chief science officer for eMed, a health care technology company that proctors at-home rapid tests, said he expects to see around 100 to 200 million tests distributed in the month after the website launches, an estimate he made based on conversations with test manufacturers.

Tests are then expected to ramp up in February after two newly authorized rapid tests hit the market, which could contribute tens of millions of tests to the government’s supply. But it will take longer than just a month for testing companies to produce the half a billion tests promised by the government.

For experts focused on the near future, that’s a concern.

“We need the testing yesterday, we need those tests available,” Dr. Gerald Harmon, president of the American Medical Association, said in an interview with ABC News. “And that’s going to be incredibly important for us to overcome the spread and mitigate the spread of this virus.”

One of the leading producers, iHealth, plans to distribute 200 million tests this month to buyers like state governments and Amazon, the company’s chief operating officer, Jack Feng, told ABC News.

Feng said iHealth could increase its supply to work with the federal government, contributing 50 million in the next three weeks and an additional 150 million tests in February.

But Feng says manufacturing the tests isn’t the major issue for iHealth — it’s getting them into the country from China, where they’re made.

Abbott, one of the first major testing companies to produce an at-home rapid test, has invested in new plants and automation to further increase its supply, which is one of the biggest sources of U.S. tests, a spokesperson said.​

“We’re running 24/7 to make 70 million tests per month with plans to surpass that,” said John Koval, a spokesperson for Abbott.

The two newest tests on the scene, from Roche and Siemens Healthineers, could give an extra boost if the companies are awarded contracts from the government. Both companies said they will be able to deliver “tens of millions” of tests per month, once they become available.

But for Roche, initial deliveries won’t begin arriving until “late January with capacity ramping up to full output throughout February and March,” a spokesperson said. Siemens told ABC News they anticipate a first supply of tests will be also available sometime in January.

Quidel, another large manufacturer, said it recently opened a manufacturing facility in California and is shipping “millions of QuickVue tests.”

And two smaller companies, Becton Dickenson and Ellume, will contribute 20 million between the two of them.

Taken altogether, the testing companies alone are unlikely to hit 500 million within a month.

Fast action requires manufacturing capabilities that the U.S. wasn’t prepared for, in part because of the unpredictability of the virus but also due to the country’s vaccine-focused approach over the past year, which drove down demand for tests and left the country with fewer tests when it needed them most.

“It is important for the U.S. to maintain the testing manufacturing capacity and supply during periods of low demand so we can respond to future variants and surges,” Koval, with Abbott, said.

“We’re on the right path now, but we can’t be complacent or think that testing won’t play a critical role in our ability to gather safely,” he said.

Unlike PCR tests, which are able to detect even small amounts of virus and can stay positive for up to three months after an infection, rapid tests are helpful for a person to know if they are likely to be contagious in that moment.

Increased access to rapid tests means Americans will be able to follow the advice of experts who say you should use rapid tests frequently, ideally a few times a week, to detect when someone becomes contagious to others.

For its part, the White House did not pledge to deliver all 500 million tests in January, but to just begin sending them then. Officials have not provided a concrete timeline on when the full amount of tests will be delivered to Americans.

It’s also not clear how many tests would be distributed to each American, though the White House has said people will request them through a website that will launch when enough tests have been acquired.

But the administration remains confident in the plan, maintaining that they are making significant progress and will deliver on the extra 500 million tests without dipping into the supply on pharmacy shelves.

“We expect to have all 500 million [tests] contracted over the next two weeks, and Americans will be able to begin ordering these tests online later this month,” a White House official told ABC News.

“We are ensuring that the tests contracted arrive as quickly as they are manufactured by the companies, and then immediately made available to the American people,” the official said.

The official said the first tests from the initial contracts awarded will be delivered to the government next week, then be distributed to Americans once the website launches.

“Securing half a billion tests will require agreements with multiple manufacturers and distributors, and the Biden administration continues to be an active partner to help accelerate production and distribution of at-home tests at large, including investing billions and using the Defense Production Act,” the official said.

A distribution plan is also in final stages between the White House and the U.S. Post Office, according to a source who was briefed on the plan last week.

In the meantime, Americans can buy tests where they can find them, though supply is spotty in many parts of the country. Beginning next week those tests will be reimbursable through health insurance, the White House said last week.

“Obviously this is an unprecedented action, to have a half a billion tests bought by the U.S. government and distributed for free,” White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters on Tuesday. “And we’ll continue to do more and more to increase access to testing.”

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