The US is struggling to test more people for coronavirus. Now, it's facing a shortage of the raw materials used to run those tests.

The US is struggling to test more people for coronavirus. Now, it's facing a shortage of the raw materials used to run those tests.
coronavirus test kit

AP Photo


Coronavirus test kits in Krasnodar, Russia, on February 4, 2020.

  • The US is struggling to ramp up testing for the new coronavirus, which has killed more than 4,000 people and infected 121,000 worldwide.
  • So far, the US has not tested as widely as other countries. As of March 8, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported only 1,707 patients had been tested.
  • Now, the US public health system could face another challenge: running low on the materials needed to perform the tests.
  • The CEO of Seattle-based Providence St. Joseph Health System told Business Insider that labs it works with don't have the materials needed to run the tests.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Since the novel coronavirus first struck the US, the country has seen 31 coronavirus-related deaths, and the number of cases has jumped above 1,000.

Public health officials are struggling to get a sense of just how widespread the coronavirus outbreak is on US soil, in part due a lack of tests. As of March 8, the US had the lowest coronavirus testing per capita rate of any developed country, in part due to an error in the test kits first sent out by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But as the US is working to ramp up its testing, it now faces shortages of the chemicals that are critical in the process of running the tests.


CDC Director Robert Redfield told Politico Tuesday that he's not sure labs are stocked with enough of the materials used to extract genetic material of the viruses present in a patient's sample.

"I'm confident of the actual test that we have, but as people begin to operationalize the test, they realize there's other things they need to do the test," Redfield told Politico.

A limited amount of raw materials

Before a laboratory can conduct a coronavirus test, it first needs to extract RNA from the virus samples taken from patients.

This extraction requires a separate kit, and without that kit, researchers can't perform a coronavirus test.

Qiagen, a company that makes the RNA-extracting kits, told Politico it's back-ordered.


Redfield said he didn't know the answer as to how the CDC would handle a scarcity of RNA-extracting kits. He added that he is hopeful "there will be mechanisms between multiple manufacturers to correct" it.

Already, some of the labs that Providence St. Joseph Health System is working with don't have the materials needed to run the tests, CEO Rod Hochman told Business Insider on Wednesday. Providence, which runs 51 hospitals across 7 West-coast states, is headquartered just outside Seattle, an area that's been hardest hit by the new coronavirus.

"It's still a nagging issue that's out there that's really been inhibiting what they're doing," Hochman said. Overall, he said, testing is ramping up slowly as more commercial labs start offering the test.

That's in part because the materials used in RNA-extracting kits, called reagents, are in demand in other countries. Places like Italy, South Korea, and China, where testing is being done more widely, "have used a lot of them," Hochman said, adding: "They're way ahead of us on testing."

The US has the lowest testing per capita among developed countries

As of Sunday, 1,707 Americans had been tested for the novel coronavirus, according to the CDC. South Korea, by contrast, has tested more than 189,000 people. The US and South Korea announced their first coronavirus cases on the same day.


The US testing shortage is due, in part, to the fact that CDC tests first distributed to state labs turned out to be flawed. More than half of the labs received inconclusive results. A problem with one ingredient in the test kits resulted in further delays.

Compared with other countries affected by the coronavirus, in fact, the US has done the fewest COVID-19 tests per capita.

South Korea's testing total so far, when broken down into number of tests performed per million citizens, seems to be about 700 times as high than the US's.

COVID 19 testing per capita (1) REAL

Skye Gould/Business Insider

It's likely that the US has done more tests than the CDC's reported figure shows, since the agency isn't tallying tests performed at state and private labs in the past week.


US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn said on Friday that the US had conducted 5,861 coronavirus tests, CNN reported. That number did not include tests conducted at private and commercial labs, Hahn added.

But even that higher number of tests per capita would still put the US behind the other seven countries listed above, with 18 tests per million people.

Read more:

One chart shows how many coronavirus tests per capita have been completed in 8 countries. The US is woefully behind.

One key indicator will tell us when the coronavirus outbreak is winding down - but we're not seeing it yet


What to know about the coronavirus outbreak in 9 charts and maps

One chart shows 11 countries' current coronavirus death rates, based on the known number of cases and deaths

Digital Health Pro

Featured Digital Health Articles:
- Telehealth Industry: Benefits, Services & Examples
- Value-Based Care Model: Pay-for-Performance Healthcare
- Senior Care & Assisted Living Market Trends
- Smart Medical Devices: Wearable Tech in Healthcare
- AI in Healthcare
- Remote Patient Monitoring Industry: Devices & Market Trends

NOW WATCH: Pathologists debunk 13 myths about the coronavirus, including why masks won't help