Northam announces plans to expand antigen testing in Virginia

Gov. Ralph Northam answered questions from reporters about how the state will and won't enforce a requirement that people wear masks indoors. (May 28, 2020 -- Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The state hasn’t purchased the tests yet.

But on Tuesday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Virginia was entering into a six-state agreement to explore the possibility of purchasing 500,000 rapid antigen tests for COVID-19. 

In a letter of intent to the Rockefeller Foundation, a multibillion-dollar public health nonprofit that’s leading its own response to the ongoing pandemic, Northam joined Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and state leaders from Michigan, Ohio, Louisiana and Massachusetts to express an interest in a collaborative purchasing agreement for the new tests.

“Our intent is to benefit as many interested states as possible,” the letter reads, later adding that the participating states “plan to leverage all available resources, collective expertise and proven cooperative contracting capabilities to enable a national cooperative agreement for national testing and tracing actions.”

All six states are in “formal discussions” with medical manufacturers Becton Dickinson and Quidel to purchase 500,000 tests each, according to a press release from Northam’s administration. “By banding together with other states, we’re signaling to private manufacturers that there is significant demand to scale up the production of these tests,” Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, added in an email on Tuesday. “A group order provides more leverage than if Virginia did this on our own — that’s why we’re continuing to encourage other states, cities, and counties to join in, if interested.”

The announcement comes as Virginia, along with the rest of the country, continues to flounder without a federal plan for widespread testing. At a briefing last week, state health officials acknowledged that ongoing supply bottlenecks in everything from reagents to testing machinery were delaying the turnaround time for results. The state is still reliant on nationwide diagnostic companies, including Quest and LabCorp, to process samples. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, some Virginians are waiting as long as two weeks for their results. 

The state’s lab in Richmond can process tests within 24 hours, but is only testing between 1,200 and 1,500 people a day, spokeswoman Dena Potter wrote in an email last week.

“Governor Northam has had several conversations with Governor Hogan on how to collaboratively increase testing, given the lack of a national testing strategy,” Yarmosky added. “This specific compact has been in the works for a few weeks, on our end.”

At his briefing last week, Northam said it was “unacceptable” to wait seven to 10 days for results, citing rapid antigen tests as a possible solution. The technology has only recently been applied to COVID-19, but can deliver results in up to 15 minutes by detecting fragments of proteins found in the virus (usually from a nasal swab).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had only approved two rapid antigen tests at the start of July. While the tests have a decided advantage by delivering results quickly, they’re also less accurate than the PCR tests, which are still considered the gold standard when it comes to diagnosing active cases of COVID-19. The FDA points out that while positive results are considered highly accurate, the chance of false negatives is higher, meaning that a negative result can’t entirely rule out the chance of infection.

Virginia Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said the letter of intent doesn’t obligate the state to purchase the tests. If the agreement goes through, the Rockefeller Foundation will help “facilitate financing” for the purchase, according to the release. Participating states also plan to collaborate on uniform policies and protocols for antigen testing. 

Yarmosky said the state didn’t currently have a cost estimate for the tests.