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As the Trump administration emphasizes the safety of reopening in warmer — or at least redder — areas of the country, new regulations are being implemented at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to help stamp out the small coronavirus outbreak at the White House. Alongside contact tracing and the mandatory use of masks for everyone but Trump, the most crucial aspect of the effort to keep the pandemic out of the president’s workplace has been the ramping up of testing. President Trump, Vice-President Pence, and staffers in close contact with the pair are now receiving daily COVID-19 tests. Unfortunately, they appear to be trading off the certainty of a testing kit shipped to a lab for a nasal-swab device built by Abbott Laboratories that provides rapid-response results but has been criticized for high levels of uncertainty.
Already, Dr. Francis Collins, director for the National Institutes of Health, has warned that the Abbott ID NOW device used by the White House has a false-negative rate of around 15 percent. “If you’re in a circumstance where you really, really don’t want to miss a diagnosis of somebody who’s already carrying the virus, you’d like to have something that has a higher sensitivity than that,” Collins said last week of the test’s being used in a workplace in which anything less than perfection should case alarm. But according to a New York University analysis that has yet to be peer reviewed, the ID NOW machine missed at least a third of positive cases that were detected by standard reference tests and as many as 48 percent of positive cases when using dry nasal swabs, as the test currently advises.
Though the president has touted the efficacy of the test on the White House lawn — displaying the device as if in a showroom and calling its entrance into the market a “whole new ball game” — its accuracy has been questioned before. Last month, when researchers warned the company of its high false-negative testing rates, Abbott advised them to stop storing samples in a liquid known as transport media so that the tests would not be diluted. Following that advice, NYU researchers then found that the false-negative rate shot close to 50 percent when testing dry swabs. According to Bloomberg News, Abbott now attests that researchers did not use the test as instructed and that its false-negative rate is .02 percent.
If the research by NYU is confirmed, the high false-negative rate would cast doubt on the security of the White House’s attempts to keep the virus out and reveal another layer of difficulty in the attempt to reopen the country safely. (Even if the U.S. reaches an adequate level of testing, it would be difficult to call the testing effort safe if it relies on unreliable kits.) And with 1.8 million ID NOW devices distributed, it is one of several machines on the market that have had problems with high false-negative rates.