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A desperate, international hunt for testing supplies so that Washington state may reopen

caption: Richard Vialva, a medical assistant with International Community Health Services, holds a coronavirus testing swab on  Thursday, April 16, 2020, at the ICHS testing area in Shoreline. "Our whole country is filled with people who are unsure of their status or can't get tested," said Vialva. "I hope we're giving people some relief."
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Richard Vialva, a medical assistant with International Community Health Services, holds a coronavirus testing swab on Thursday, April 16, 2020, at the ICHS testing area in Shoreline. "Our whole country is filled with people who are unsure of their status or can't get tested," said Vialva. "I hope we're giving people some relief."
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Washington state is on an international hunt for coronavirus testing supplies.

The competition is fierce: Coronavirus has spread in almost every country, and those supplies are limited.

A single test contains parts from around the world. Swabs -- which look like long Q-tips -- are made in Italy and a tiny town in Maine. Liquids to preserve samples in Shanghai, China.

Covid-19 has escalated the need for these products, part of a supply chain that is built for flu season, not a global pandemic.

Without negotiations for these supplies happening at a federal level, University of Washington researchers in Seattle have turned into business negotiators practically overnight, locating the makers of these supplies, and then striking a deal.

"To actually just find supply of these swab kits has not been easy," said Keith Jerome, head of the UW Virology Lab, in an interview with KUOW’s Bill Radke. "Our department chair actually spent days on the phone talking with manufacturers in China, trying to find a connection, and ultimately did."

Jerome said 80,000 swabs were being distributed in western Washington as a result of a grassroots effort between scientists and doctors who he said are "becoming importer exporter businesses with no previous experience."

Gov. Jay Inslee, too, is on a “desperate quest” for these supplies, said Reed Schuler, a senior policy advisor to the governor. Inslee is personally involved in the "procurement war room," Schuler said, to hunt down everything needed to build an adequate testing system in the state.

And yet, Washington state is meeting just one-tenth of its testing goal.

On Tuesday, Inslee said the state should strive toward processing between 20,000 and 30,000 tests a day. The state currently processes about 3,000 samples on weekdays. The state could process many more samples – but there are not enough supplies to meet lab testing capacity.

And so, with some exceptions, the most sick are those tested for coronavirus in Washington state. This means public health officials cannot know the virus's reach into the population -- where it is spreading now, or where it is headed.

Tests are part of the wobbly three-legged stool for containing the virus: Contact tracing, which means tracking who gave the virus to whom, stockpiling masks and gowns for health workers, and testing itself.

Each test is like a pin on a map. The more pins -- for people who are sick, or who have been exposed -- the more information. That data allows officials to identify who absolutely must stay home, forbidden to leave the house. Or who else might have been exposed. To reopen -- and prevent a new spike of Covid-19 cases -- the state must be able to identify who is sick, and test their contacts.

Washington state has spent $300 million so far on supplies to fight the coronavirus, most of it on personal protective equipment for health workers.

Money is key, but political sway helps, too.

On Monday, Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland announced that his state had acquired 500,000 Covid-19 tests from South Korea’s LabGenomics -- more than three times the number of total tests performed in Washington state (145,031).

Hogan credited his wife Yumi Hogan, who is Korean American, for bridging a bond between Maryland and South Korea.

Inslee, for his part, has reached out to Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for U.S. Health and Human Services, and the lead in testing efforts among public health service agencies in the U.S. Inslee has also personally called leaders of medical producers and distributors in the U.S. and abroad, Schuler said.

The governor was recently on a call with Puritan Medical Products in Guilford, Maine, one of two places in the world that makes flocked swabs. The other producer is in Italy.

An email from the Maine company reads: "This tremendous surge in demand for Covid-19 swabs and transport systems has resulted in inventory and order delays for many of our products at this time."

The company said it is in contact with the Coronavirus White House Task Force.

Washington state’s procurement team is in frequent talks with international distributors, Schuler said. China represents a majority of total procurement for personal protective equipment (masks and gowns), and new testing supply leads.

"We're happy to get these products from wherever we can," Schuler said.

The supplies aren’t always adequate.

This month, UW Medicine flew in 100,000 test kits from Lingen Precision Medical Products, based in Shanghai, China.

Thousands of these kits were donated to the Washington Department of Health. About 12,000 were recalled Saturday, after the coloring of the fluid that preserves a specimen during transport, known as viral transport media, appeared to be abnormal.

Department of Health officials said they were unable to immediately replace all the recalled swabs and viral transport media tubes, because the state's supplies "aren't adequate at the moment."

A large shipment of swabs from another vendor was anticipated to arrive this week, however, and Washington state already has viral transport media from another seller.

The race for testing supplies is at odds with what Trump Administration officials are saying. This week, Trump officials said that testing in the U.S. was adequate enough for states to begin initiating recovery plans.

Inslee disagreed and said so in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence.

"Scientists are indicating that testing levels must significantly grow over the coming weeks — reaching volumes not possible with current resources — before we can responsibly modify interventions that remain our best defense against the virus," Inslee wrote.

Inslee wrote that Washington state was working to obtain 2.5 million test collection kits to support optimal testing levels, but that the state was nowhere near that goal.

The federal government has helped some, said Schuler, the advisor, by helping to increase domestic production of some supplies, and getting limited products from abroad. But the feds have pushed the responsibility largely to states to find what's needed, he said.

"Obviously, there's a role for the federal government to play in organizing this fight," Schuler said. "We really see it as a federal role to take primary responsibility for ensuring there's an adequate testing system nationally."

KUOW's Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong and Bill Radke contributed reporting.

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