As scientists scramble to decipher the severity of COVID-19's newly identified omicron variant, and as public health experts prepare for the predicted surge in coronavirus cases in the upcoming winter months, the U.S. government is bulking up its safeguards against the virus.
Alongside reiterating its recommendation that all eligible Americans be vaccinated and boosted, the White House is planning to unveil a new strategy on Thursday that will expand international travel testing requirements and extend the federal mandate requiring masks on airplanes, trains and public transportation, according to a White House preview of the plan.
Additionally, nearly two years after the Trump administration tasked private health insurers with reimbursing the total costs of point-of-care COVID tests and health services, President Biden will expand that requirement to include at-home tests, too.
Under the new rule, more than 150 million Americans covered by private insurers will be able to file for reimbursement when they purchase any of the antigen and molecular diagnostics that have received emergency authorizations from the FDA for over-the-counter use. So far, more than a dozen of these have been OK’d by the agency, at least eight of which are already on the market.
“We think this is the right policy,” Natalie Quillian, the White House’s deputy COVID response coordinator, told NPR. “We also think it’s the most economical policy because the cost of an individual getting COVID and going to the hospital and seeking those bills is much higher than the cost of any rapid home test.”
Sherlock Biosciences, maker of an authorized CRISPR-based, in-lab diagnostic—which is currently under development to expand into at-home testing—echoed that sentiment.
“Reducing barriers to access is going to enable the maximum benefit to public health, which is critical, not just in a pandemic, but in the ongoing efforts to get people into the right treatment path,” CEO Bryan Dechairo said in a statement. “It starts with diagnostics—we need to get ‘healthcare’ to the population, not ‘sick care.’”
The guidance is expected to take effect early next year, with the federal labor, treasury and health and human services departments slated to finalize the rule by Jan. 15. Reimbursement will begin only after the rule has taken effect—rather than retroactively covering previous at-home test purchases—and the government has not yet specified whether there will be a cap on the reimbursement amount available to each covered individual.
Meanwhile, uninsured Americans and those covered by public insurance will be able to access free at-home tests through federally funded testing sites, community health centers and rural clinics. To that end, the Biden administration plans to distribute 25 million tests to these facilities.
That’s on top of the tens of millions of freshly manufactured tests that the government has already directed toward free and low-cost healthcare providers. In recent months, Biden has allotted billions of dollars to rapid test makers to help them churn out diagnostic supplies, with a goal of quadrupling the nation’s monthly supply of tests by the end of the year.
The administration’s doubling—or, rather, quadrupling—down on expanding testing and availability comes as many makers of cleared at-home tests have affirmed that their products are able to detect omicron and other variants of the coronavirus.
Before the new strain had even been detected on U.S. soil, companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific, Abbott, Qiagen, Cue Health and more began rushing to release data showing that their diagnostic offerings were still viable amid the rapidly evolving virus.
As Mark Stevenson, Thermo Fisher’s chief operating officer, explained earlier this week: “Like all viruses, we have always known that SARS-CoV-2 would continue to mutate and that effective testing strategies are a key to curbing the pandemic. That is why we developed assays with additional built-in checks and balances to ensure that clinicians, researchers and public health officials would have effective tools to accurately test for COVID-19 even as the genetic makeup of the virus evolved.”