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US to rein in flood of virus blood tests after lax oversight

The Food and Drug Administration said it took the action because some sellers have made false claims about the tests and their accuracy. Companies will now have to show their tests work or risk having them pulled from the market.

Daily Life In New York City Amid Coronavirus Outbreak
A view of signage at MedRite Urgent Care which has recently started COVID-19 antibody testing during the coronavirus pandemic on April 27, 2020 in New York City. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world, claiming over 211,000 lives and infecting over 3 million people.
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — U.S. regulators Monday pulled back a decision that allowed scores of coronavirus blood tests to hit the market without first providing proof that they worked.

The Food and Drug Administration said it took the action because some sellers have made false claims about the tests and their accuracy. Companies will now have to show their tests work or risk having them pulled from the market.

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Last week, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., chairman of a House panel investigating whether COVID-19 antibody tests work, accused the FDA last Tuesday of stonewalling in developing information about antibody test kits that went on the market before the FDA validated their claims.

There is an enormous interest in developing antibody tests to see if people had COVID-19, even if they did not show symptoms.

Krishnamoorthi said in a Monday statement, “In response to my Subcommittee’s investigation exposing failure and fraud in the serology test market, FDA admitted its mistakes and made critically needed changes to its policy to require FDA review of all antibody tests on the market. As our investigation revealed, FDA’s prior laissez-faire policy let more than 150 tests go to market without any review, flooding the market with inaccurate and falsely marketed tests. Now, FDA must expeditiously conduct its review and clear the market of tests that don’t work or aren’t submitted for review, so that consumers can take confidence that testing services they receive are reliable and trustworthy.”

Antibody tests for coronavirus hold promise, but they’re not yet reliable enough. The Sun-Times reported that in Chicago, you can get one of the blood tests to detect past exposure to COVID-19 for about $100. But even if they’re accurate, there’s no proof this will provide future immunity.

Under pressure to increase testing options, the FDA in March essentially allowed companies to begin selling tests as long as they notified the agency of their plans and provided disclaimers, including that they were not FDA approved. The policy was intended to allow “flexibility” needed to quickly ramp up production, officials said.

“However, flexibility never meant we would allow fraud,” Dr. Anand Shah, an FDA deputy commissioner, said in a statement. “We unfortunately see unscrupulous actors marketing fraudulent test kits and using the pandemic as an opportunity to take advantage of Americans.”

Blood tests are different from the nasal swab tests currently used to diagnose active COVID-19 infections. Instead, the tests look for blood proteins called antibodies, which the body produces days or weeks after fighting an infection. Most use a finger-prick of blood on a test strip.

The revised policy follows weeks of criticism from doctors, lab specialists and members of Congress who said the FDA’s lack of oversight created a Wild West of unregulated tests.

The agency acknowledged Monday that there have been problems with deceptive, false marketing among the 160 tests that have been launched in the U.S. Some companies have claimed their tests can be used at home, although FDA has not allowed that use. Others make unsubstantiated claims about their accuracy. Some U.S. hospitals and local governments have reported buying tests that turned out to be inaccurate or frauds.

So far, the FDA has granted authorization to 11 antibody tests, meaning their methods, materials and accuracy passed muster with agency regulators. Companies with test kits currently on the market without FDA authorization will now be required to submit formal applications to regulators within 10 business days. Companies that launch at a later date will have 10 days to turn over their applications after validating their tests.

Health officials in the U.S. and around the world have suggested the tests could be helpful in identifying people who have previously had the virus — with or without getting sick — and developed some immunity to it. But researchers haven’t yet been able to answer key questions that are essential to their practical use: what level of antibodies does it take to be immune and how long does that protection last?

“We’re spending a lot of time and resources on something that is not really a panacea for reopening,” said Kamran Kadkhoda, a lab director at the Cleveland Clinic.

For now, the tests are mainly a research tool for scientists trying to determine how widely the coronavirus has spread among the U.S. population. Those studies are underway but have produced widely different preliminary results, in part, due to variations between tests. Even high-performing tests can produce skewed results when used in a large population where few people have had the virus.

The National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies are also reviewing tests and conducting research into whether they can successfully predict immunity.

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement that the government’s approach to “balancing of risks and benefits has shifted from where it was in mid-March” based on new data from FDA and NIH reviews.

Monday’s move is the latest in the Trump administration’s fitful attempt to roll out an effective, comprehensive approach to testing. While testing has ramped up since the outset of the outbreak, state and local governments continue to report shortages of testing supplies needed to screen for the virus and safely ease social distancing measures. A “testing blueprint” released last week by the White House emphasized that states are responsible for developing their own testing plans.