Under increased scrutiny for its sluggish approach to COVID-19 testing, the Biden administration’s line of late has been that nobody could have seen a troublesome new variant like Omicron coming. That’s news to the armada of epidemiologists who had been warning about just such a scenario for the past two years.
At a press conference Tuesday, Biden responded snappishly to PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, who had asked him, “What’s your message to Americans who are trying to get tested now and who are not able to get tested and who are wondering what took so long to ramp up testing?”
“Come on. ‘What took so long?’” Biden scoffed. “Well, what took so long is — it didn’t take long at all. What happened was the Omicron virus spread even more rapidly than anybody thought.”
Those words echo those of Vice-President Kamala Harris, who said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week, “We didn’t see Delta coming. I think most scientists did not — upon whose advice and direction we have relied — didn’t see Delta coming,” she said. “We didn’t see Omicron coming.”
An adviser to Harris later attempted to clarify the vice-president’s remarks to CNN. “The vice president’s comments referred to the exact kind of mutation,” the adviser said, according to CNN. “The administration knew mutations were possible — it’s the reason we ordered extra tests, extra gear, and extra PPE.”
It is true that the specific characteristics of Omicron, with its unprecedentedly high rate of transmission and ability to break through vaccines, took a lot of people — including experts — by surprise. But epidemiologists have been warning since the pandemic began that the longer the virus was circulating, the higher the chance new and unpredictable mutations would develop. A survey of epidemiologists in March found that two-thirds believed first-generation vaccines would be rendered ineffective by a new variant in less than a year.
Arriving on the heels of Donald “Slow the Testing Down, Please” Trump, the Biden administration framed itself as a quietly competent team that knew how to navigate highly complex situations. So the lack of preparedness on testing, which most of Europe has made almost free and easily available, is particularly jarring. Two weeks after White House press secretary Jen Psaki was widely criticized for mocking the idea of sending at-home tests to all Americans, Biden said Tuesday that he would make 500 million such tests free for those who want them starting in January and that the federal government would open new testing sites around the country.
Asked by ABC News’s David Muir whether the current testing shortfalls constituted a “failure,” Biden said no. But he admitted his administration could have had a little more foresight.
“I wish I had thought about ordering’” 500 million at-home tests ‘two months ago,” he said. As Politico Playbook noted, this stance was at odds with his many previous vows to ramp up testing in the first year of his presidency even amid the vaccination push.
Especially given that he has cast himself as a Mr. Fix It president, Biden’s insistence that it had been difficult to foresee another round of the pandemic is not the greatest look. Perhaps when it comes to COVID-testing questions, Biden should take a cue from Mark McGwire by focusing on the future and not talking so much about the past.
More on omicron
- What to Know About the New COVID Booster Shots
- The Dismantling of Hong Kong
- What We Know About All the Omicron Subvariants, Including BA.2.12.1