New rapid coronavirus test is a ‘huge step forward,’ but still not enough to meet the need
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New rapid coronavirus test is a ‘huge step forward,’ but still not enough to meet the need

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CHICAGO — The new rapid coronavirus test from an Illinois medical device company is “a game changer,” but even the promised production of tens of thousands of units a day will not make it possible to test people at the frequency many experts say is needed in the fight against COVID-19.

Abbott Laboratories late last week announced a new test that produces results in minutes, not days, and said it would start shipping the tests out this week as it ramps up to producing 50,000 a day. On Monday, company officials said the first batch of 50,000 tests would go out Wednesday, based on priorities set by the federal government.

The tests are run through an existing Abbott device, about the size of a toaster, that processes specimens taken from patients.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has hammered at the need for more testing to better assess the scope of the pandemic, latched onto the Abbott news over the weekend and on Monday.

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“I am very, very excited about the development of this rapid Abbott test that’s coming out, he said Monday during his daily COVID-19 briefing. “If we can produce enough of those, we can make a real difference.”

But he also tamped down expectations.

“The problem is that Abbott can only produce about 50,000 of these a day,” the governor said. “Now, that may sound like a lot, but there are 50 states in the United States. There are 320 million people in the United States — 50,000 isn’t going to get us to where we need to be across the nation, and we aren’t going to be able to hive off enough of those for Illinois for it to be significant.”

Abbott’s test produces a positive result in as little as five minutes and a negative result in under 13 minutes, according to the company. The tests now being used in the United States must be sent to labs and can take several days to process. Some sick people aren’t getting results for a week or more.

Development of the rapid test is “very exciting,” said Dr. Rahul Khare, founder and CEO of Innovative Express Care, a North Side urgent care facility that is conducting about 60 tests a day but does not get results back for two to five days.

“This is a huge step forward,” Khare said. “This is a great thing that will be talked about in the months to come.”

But like Pritzker, Khare noted that 50,000 isn’t such a large number given that experts believe far more testing needs to be done to adequately track and tame COVID-19. “When you think about it, it’s very few.”

Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s commissioner of public health, last week told the Tribune that “in an ideal world, we would have widespread testing.” But she noted that testing kits, plus protective gear for medical personnel, remain in short supply. So most testing is being limited to health care workers, first responders, the sickest people, those at highest risk of severe consequences and those with a greater risk of spreading the disease.

So far, the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has infected more than 766,000 people and killed nearly 37,000 of them worldwide, according to a global tracker set up by the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering.

Illinois on Monday reported 5,057 total cases, 743 of which have led to death. The White House indicated last week that it has identified Chicago as a potential “hot spot,” along with New York City, New Orleans and Seattle.

The state, and Pritzker, were smart to call for people to stay at home relatively early, but Illinois is still months behind because of the lack of ability to test, said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Institute for Global Health at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“When you don’t know who has it, you don’t know who’s spreading it,” Murphy said, explaining the importance of broader testing. He called news of the Abbott testing “fantastic.”

Pritzker over the weekend said about 4,000 tests a day are now being processed in the state, but he made clear on Monday that even with the new Abbott test, Illinois and the rest of the nation are behind.

“There are not enough tests,” Pritzker said. The number of tests being done, he added, is “minimal compared to the number of people we know already have COVID-19 or have had it and never knew it. So this is an enormous problem. … The entire country is behind on this.”

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