Talking Points

The FDA has been timid on COVID tests. It should have been bold.

One of the more aggravating aspects of the Omicron surge is that the country needs lots and lots of COVID tests, preferably cheap, but getting them is difficult. It's easier to slow the spread of a virus — or to safely visit family at the holidays — if you know who has the bug and who doesn't. But nearly two years into the pandemic, achieving that simple goal in America is still elusive. (In Europe, testing kits are relatively cheap and easy to obtain.)

The problem seems to be at the FDA. ProPublica reported last month that companies trying to develop rapid COVID tests have encountered an "arbitrary, opaque process" which takes so long to complete that one agency scientist quit in frustration earlier this year. One company was ready to roll out a product in March 2020, right as the pandemic was getting under way, but approval never came.

"You could have antigen tests saving lives since the beginning of the pandemic," said MIT's Irene Bosch, who developed that test. "That's the sad story."

All of this ought to raise an uncomfortable question for Democrats: Are conservatives right that America's regulatory processes are too much

Republicans have long been obsessed with deregulation, and in particular they have argued the FDA's approval processes prevent new life-saving treatments from getting to the people who need them. The party has acted accordingly: Then-President Donald Trump signed a federal "right to try" law in 2018 that lets sick patients try experimental drugs. His administration also raised alarms earlier this year when it tried to jam through last-minute directives to reduce the agency's oversight of new drugs and medical devices. The FDA's defenders say its processes try to balance speed and the need to deliver safe, effective care — and present themselves as defenders of the scientific process. 

Maybe that's the intent, but the ongoing dearth of cheap and plentiful COVID tests suggests the balance is out of whack. The FDA has been timid where it ought to be bold. And it suggests that Republicans have had a point. Regulations exist to protect Americans from harm, whether that be through illness, injury, or some other cause. In the case of COVID testing, though, the FDA's processes have arguably created more problems than they have prevented. 

As the party of Big Government — and as the party currently in charge — Democrats must fix this testing mess. The answer isn't to merely eliminate safety rules and leave Americans at the mercy of the markets, but to make the process more flexible and ready to act in emergencies. It's time to make the system work. Two years is too long to wait for COVID tests.