The federal government is again offering free Covid-19 tests to Americans, providing a fifth round of free tests in part to meet current needs, in part to stimulate a domestic testing industry that has struggled with cratering demand for the rapid diagnostics.
The measure, announced Wednesday, will see rapid tests released from the Strategic National Stockpile. In addition, 12 domestic test manufacturers will receive investments totaling $600 million to help “warm-base” the U.S. capacity for rapid test production, both for Covid and future disease threats.
“We will make available some of those tests that we have in our stockpile,” Xavier Becerra, health and human services secretary, said in Washington, “so that Americans can … use those tests during this viral season.”
Earlier in the pandemic, demand for rapid tests was huge. But it has been up and down, based on levels of transmission — and on the intensity of public concern. For instance, some manufacturers scaled back production in 2021, as the national vaccination effort gained ground.
When the massive Omicron wave hit in late 2021 and early 2022, it took weeks to get significant supplies of tests available again, Dawn O’Connell, HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, told STAT in an interview. Since the end of the public health emergency in May, some health insurers have declined to pay for rapid tests, further depressing sales.
The country needs to have ongoing production capacity, based in the U.S., O’Connell said.
“What it does is keep the lines running, so we no longer have that boom and bust [cycle],” she said. “This capability is important now for Covid and we’re using it and exercising it now as we’re heading into the fall and winter season. But it’s going to be critically important for other outbreaks that we’re responding to in the future.”
Households will be entitled to receive four free rapid tests apiece, with ordering at COVIDtests.gov opening on Sept. 25. O’Connell said test shipments are expected to start on Oct. 2.
The money flowing to the 12 domestic producers will require them to keep their production bases warm. O’Connell said that after the winter, when public demand for tests may again shrink, the federal government will receive, as part of the deal, 200 million new Covid tests to replenish the national stockpile.
She encouraged people to order the tests and use them, especially when planning to spend time around people for whom Covid remains a significant health threat.
“We’ve seen each fall and winter season an increase in cases as people move indoors and are seeing their families again and interacting in smaller groups and closer quarters. We wanted to make sure as we head into that season … that we provide an avenue for people to be able to receive these tests for free,” O’Connell said.
“It’s just one of the arrows in our quiver for the fall and winter season and we’re pleased to provide these tools to protect Americans from Covid and keep their family members safe.”