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Biden promised a billion COVID tests. Contracts to buy them are being announced

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many Americans can't find at-home rapid COVID tests, and that's a lingering problem for the Biden administration as the omicron variant has COVID cases surging to new highs. Today, the White House shared details about a new website launching next week, where people will be able to order free tests to be sent to their homes.

Pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin and White House correspondent Tamara Keith are here to talk about this. And, Tam, let's start with you. Tell us more about the website. How is the program going to work?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: So this website will go live next Wednesday. It is COVIDtests.gov. That's tests, plural - hard to say on the radio. To start with, it will just be four tests per household address. So anyone who wants them can go to the website or call into a hotline they're setting up, give their name and address, and the tests will be shipped to them via the U.S. Postal Service, shipping out 7 to 12 days after they put in the order. The idea is for Americans to get some tests to have on hand for when they might need them going forward.

SHAPIRO: And, Sydney, where are these tests coming from? How many has the government purchased?

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Well, so far, the government has signed contracts for around 430 million tests. Most of those are coming from test manufacturers Abbott - which makes BinaxNOW - Roche - which distributes SD Biosensor - and a company called iHealth. Although the last two of those got their FDA authorizations relatively recently and are new to the U.S., they've been distributed in Europe and Asia for a while.

The rest are from companies you've probably never heard of - Goldbelt Security, Revival Health, Medea, Atlantic Trading. They're wholesalers, importers, acquisitions groups. One, Atlantic Trading, sells mostly to grocery stores. Officials said the administration initially went to warehouses to buy existing supply to be able to ship out those very first tests by the end of January.

SHAPIRO: Tam, in 2013, the federal government launched a big website that catastrophically failed, healthcare.gov. Any reason to believe this one won't also run into issues?

KEITH: Certainly, the Biden administration is haunted by the ghost of healthcare.gov, which means they are doing everything to avoid a similar problem. Politically, it is really critical for the White House to get this right. They're already being criticized, even by Democratic lawmakers, that this testing ramp up is coming well after the omicron surge started.

But this website is magnitudes less complicated than healthcare.gov. People won't have to create an account or provide ID or anything like that. It is truly just name, address, boom - or add an email address if you want to track your order.

The other difference is this website is not reinventing the wheel. This whole project is being done in close coordination with the U.S. Postal Service. And an administration official said the website is built on existing e-commerce infrastructure of the USPS. They've been working also with U.S. Digital Services (ph), which was created in the wake of that Obamacare website failure. That doesn't mean that things can't go wrong, but one administration official said, quote, "we're ready for this."

SHAPIRO: So, Sydney, is this a good deal for the taxpayers?

LUPKIN: I mean, that's a good question, considering the federal government invested in and used the Defense Production Act to help with some test development and manufacturing ramp-up. Transparency has been spotty. The contract announcements all either came with a dollar value or a number of tests, never both. And that makes it hard to know what the price per test is but not impossible.

Using our powers of deduction - middle-school math - we can figure out that the Goldbelt Security contract comes out at about 532 per test. And the administration has said it plans to spend around $4.6 billion for the first 500 million tests - so about nine bucks a pop overall, including distribution costs.

But really, we won't know the specifics until the administration releases the contracts in full. And it still hasn't posted the purchase agreements for COVID pills. And the first one was inked way back in June, so we may not know for months.

SHAPIRO: And what is the overall testing supply?

LUPKIN: The White House has said this effort won't cannibalize existing tests headed for pharmacies. But it's hard to tell at this point how the government will do that. Arizona State professor Mara Aspinall has been tracking testing supply closely. She estimates that around 260 million tests will be made in January by the 12 manufacturers with FDA authorizations, but 5- or 6 million of those tests are being used every day. Right now the main manufacturing obstacle is getting enough workers to make tests.

MARA ASPINALL: Today the biggest challenge is staffing not only because people are out sick for COVID, but the broad situation in our country is it's very hard to find employees.

LUPKIN: She said several companies have announced manufacturing slowdowns because of COVID just in the last week.

SHAPIRO: Tam, what about the number of tests people are getting? Four might not go very far for a large family.

KEITH: Or even a small family - so the White House is trying to be careful with these first 500 million tests. They want to make sure that every household is able to get at least four tests. Now, if demand ends up being not so high, they might be able to recalibrate or let people order more. But right now, four tests isn't even really enough for a family of four if COVID has made it into their home and they're trying to figure out who's got it next.

But officials say there are other ways to get tests, including free tests being given away at community sites like libraries and clinics. Also, starting tomorrow, if you have insurance, you can find tests in a drugstore or online - if you can find them. And insurance will have to reimburse for them, so there are lots of options out there. This isn't the only game in town, but the White House definitely needs to figure out how to pull this off because it is important to the public perception of how the president is handling the pandemic.

SHAPIRO: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin, thank you both.

KEITH: You're welcome.

LUPKIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.