Senators request FTC investigation into 'unfair, deceptive and harmful' COVID test price gouging

In an effort reminiscent of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was nearly impossible to find a bottle of hand sanitizer or basic face mask being sold online at a reasonable price, U.S. lawmakers are once again calling for an end to price gouging related to the virus.

Sens. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, penned a letter (PDF) to Lina Khan, chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), to ask the agency to investigate—and then put a stop to—the rise in wildly overpriced and, in some cases, fraudulent at-home COVID tests.

The senators pointed to recent reports highlighting instances across the U.S. in which the rapid antigen tests were being sold for double or triple their listed retail prices as well as cases of counterfeit and other unapproved diagnostics being sold for profit. The latter trend has caused the FDA to repeatedly warn consumers against purchasing fraudulent COVID tests, vaccines and treatments.

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That “predatory and profiteering behavior,” according to Markey and Blumenthal, stems from the highly infectious omicron variant of the virus, which has hugely inflated demand for at-home tests faster than retailers can restock their shelves.

“We can think of nothing more unfair, deceptive and harmful than the exploitation of public health concerns for profit during a global emergency,” the senators wrote. “No one should be allowed to reap a windfall and fraudulently exploit fear and human suffering.”

With that in mind, Markey and Blumenthal called on the FTC to “use its full authority to investigate the situation and hold bad actors accountable without delay,” including by issuing new rules regarding deceptive selling practices and fining even first-time violators of those and other existing rules against pandemic price gouging.

The lawmakers’ letter came after—and was “encouraged” by—a recent FTC notice instructing consumers in how to avoid buying counterfeit coronavirus tests. Tips include checking a listed test against the FDA’s list of authorized diagnostics, performing a separate search for negative reviews of and scams related to the seller and paying by credit card so the charge can later be disputed and refunded if necessary.

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In an additional effort to bring down the costs of COVID tests, Markey sent another letter to each of 10 test makers and nine retailers, asking them to make the tests they make and sell more affordable.

In his missives (PDF) to manufacturers—a group that included Abbott, BD, Quidel and more—the Massachusetts senator noted that malaria tests using similar technology to Abbott’s Panbio at-home test sell for only $0.20 each, and pointed to a claim by British test maker Mologic that rapid antigen COVID tests can cost as little as $2 to make.

“Yet, U.S. consumers face costs of $12 or more for each at-home rapid COVID-19 antigen test,” Markey wrote, adding, “As we face an unprecedented wave of COVID cases, manufacturers and retailers must do more to ensure consumers see reasonable prices for at-home tests.”

He asked the companies not only to lower their prices but also to share their per-test manufacturing and wholesale costs, detail whether they’ve reached out to the federal government about a lack of test-making supplies and outline their plans to keep consumer costs low.