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Rapid COVID-19 tests increasingly scarce, pricey as demand from employers jumps

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Surging demand for COVID-19 tests from U.S. employers has exacerbated a nationwide shortage of rapid tests in recent weeks and is driving up costs for state and local testing programs, according to industry executives and state officials.

Testmakers including Abbott Laboratories, Quidel Corp and LumiraDX Ltd are scaling up production to meet rising demand. But significantly boosting test output will take weeks to months, half a dozen industry executives told Reuters, making the tests harder to procure in the near term.

“Employer demand has gone crazy,” said Quidel Chief Executive Doug Bryant. “We won’t be able to meet all the requests that we’re having.”

Nearly a dozen state governments said they are grappling with shortages of rapid tests, which provide on-the-spot results within minutes and are crucial for COVID-19 surveillance programs.

In Missouri, limited supplies of Abbott’s Binax Now rapid test, which typically sell to states for around $5 each, have forced it to consider other, more expensive options, a spokesperson for the states’ public health agency said.

“We are exploring other rapid antigen tests and finding most are at least three times higher than Abbott’s rapid antigen test,” the spokesperson said, adding that Missouri has not yet had to purchase the pricier tests.

Oklahoma has begun to pay higher prices for tests in recent weeks, said Michael DeRemer, the state’s director of emergency preparedness and response services.

State governments have been struggling to acquire https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-covid-19-tests-again-short-supply-infections-soar-schools-reopen-2021-08-27 enough rapid tests for several months after a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the more contagious Delta variant.

And U.S. employers in recent weeks have been rushing to stockpile tests after the White House in September said it plans to mandate weekly testing for unvaccinated staff at businesses with more than 100 employees.

Emerald Packaging Inc, a plastic bag factory in San Francisco with 250 workers, sees the cost of complying with the government’s testing mandate as a burden and is urging employees to get vaccinated.

Emerald may require vaccination once the federal rule goes into effect, said CEO Kevin Kelly. He said Emerald has spent about $50,000 testing its employees so far and is concerned weekly tests will further drive up costs.

Quidel has had to decline more than half of requests from employers seeking to stock up ahead of the mandate, expected to take effect in October, said CEO Bryant.

It has also had to postpone exports of rapid tests to some foreign governments until next year, Bryant said. Quidel is delivering on existing contracts with countries including Canada.

BIDDING WARS, SIGNIFICANT MARKUPS

U.S. testmakers manufacture more than 50 million rapid COVID-19 tests each month, not enough for regular surveillance testing at schools and workplaces across the country, said Evercore ISI analyst Vijay Kumar.

Rapid antigen tests can cost as little as $2 each to make, according to Mologic, one of the largest British testmakers. But in the United States, bidding wars between health systems, state governments, and employers have contributed to much higher prices.

South Carolina, for example, is paying as much as $130 each for some of its rapid tests, a state spokesperson said.

That contrasts sharply with the UK and European countries. In Germany, large government purchases allow it to offer rapid tests to residents for less than $1 each, and it is not experiencing severe shortages.

Abbott and Quidel said they do not plan to raise test prices for customers. However, retailers and test providers often purchase tests and resell them at significant markups.

Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc and CVS Health Corp sell Abbott’s Binax Now rapid tests – which Abbott lists for around $5 – for $12 per test at pharmacies. Walmart Inc, Kroger and Amazon.com Inc charge nearly $8 per test even after they slashed prices temporarily to cost.

States largely have been using the $10 billion the White House set aside primarily for school testing programs. Some states including Missouri said their federal aid is running out.

Meanwhile, employers and consumers must pay for rapid test purchases themselves.

In an effort to ramp up production, Abbott reopened a plant in Illinois it had shuttered earlier this year, putting it back on track to produce upwards of 50 million Binax Now tests per month by the end of October, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Quidel is building a new plant that will boost its rapid test output from around 20 million per month to as much as 70 million, but it will not be operational until year-end, Bryant said. LumiraDX is planning to nearly double its test production by year end.

On Monday, U.S. regulators authorized a rapid test made by ACON Laboratories, which plans to produce as many as 100 million per month by the end of the year.

“There’s definitely a supply chain squeeze on the rapid antigen side,” said Matthew McKnight, an executive at Ginkgo BioWorks, which manages surveillance testing programs for employers. “It will take a couple months (before) production catches up.”

 

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell in New York, Additional reporting by Tim Aeppel in New York; Editing by Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot)

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Biden says United States would come to Taiwan’s defense

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The United States would come to Taiwan‘s defense and has a commitment to defend the island China claims as its own, U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday, though the White House said later there was no change in policy towards the island.

“Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” Biden said at a CNN town hall when asked if the United States would come to the defense of Taiwan, which has complained of mounting military and political pressure from Beijing to accept Chinese sovereignty.

While Washington is required by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, it has long followed a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on whether it would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

In August, a Biden administration https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/us-position-taiwan-unchanged-despite-biden-comment-official-2021-08-19 official said U.S. policy on Taiwan had not changed after the president appeared to suggest the United States would defend the island if it were attacked.

A White House spokesperson said Biden at his town hall was not announcing any change in U.S. policy and “there is no change in our policy”.

“The U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act. We will uphold our commitment under the Act, we will continue to support Taiwan’s self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo,” the spokesperson said.

Biden said people should not worry about Washington’s military strength because “China, Russia and the rest of the world knows we’re the most powerful military in the history of the world,”

“What you do have to worry about is whether or not they’re going to engage in activities that would put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake,” Biden said.

“I don’t want a cold war with China. I just want China to understand that we’re not going to step back, that we’re not going to change any of our views.”

Military tensions between Taiwan and China are at their worst in more than 40 years, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said this month, adding that China will be capable of mounting a “full-scale” invasion by 2025.

Taiwan says it is an independent country and will defend its freedoms and democracy.

China says Taiwan is the most sensitive and important issue in its ties with the United States and has denounced what it calls “collusion” between Washington and Taipei.

Speaking to reporters earlier on Thursday, China’s United Nations Ambassador Zhang Jun said they are pursuing “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan and responding to “separatist attempts” by its ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

“We are not the troublemaker. On the contrary, some countries – the U.S. in particular – is taking dangerous actions, leading the situation in Taiwan Strait into a dangerous direction,” he said.

“I think at this moment what we should call is that the United States to stop such practice. Dragging Taiwan into a war definitely is in nobody’s interest. I don’t see that the United States will gain anything from that.”

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York and Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Stephen Coates)

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Alec Baldwin fires gun on movie set, killing cinematographer, authorities say

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Actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun on a movie set in New Mexico on Thursday, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza, authorities said.

The incident occurred on the set of independent feature film “Rust,” the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s office said in a statement.

“The sheriff’s office confirms that two individuals were shot on the set of Rust. Halyna Hutchins, 42, director of photography, and Joel Souza, 48, director, were shot when a prop  firearms was discharged by Alec Baldwin, 68, producer and actor,” the police said in a statement.

A Variety report https://bit.ly/3nnyldg said the shooting occurred at the Bonanza Creek Ranch, a production location south of Santa Fe in New Mexico.

No charges have yet been filed in regard to the incident, said the police, adding they are investigating the shooting.

Baldwin’s representatives did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

 

(Reporting by Bhargav Acharya in Bengaluru; Editing by Karishma Singh)

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Trudeau 'confident' other countries will accept Canadians' proof of vaccination – CBC.ca

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today he’s “very confident” countries around the world will accept Canadians’ proof of vaccination.

Today, the federal government announced that Canadians will be able to use a standardized provincial or territorial proof-of-vaccination documentation to travel internationally — although it will be up to foreign governments to accept them or not.

Government officials, speaking on background during a briefing this morning, said they worked with the provinces to come up with a “pan Canadian” format and are confident it will be widely accepted.

They added the government is working with other countries to ensure acceptance abroad.

“We are very confident this proof-of-vaccination certificate that will be federally approved, issued by the provinces with the health information for Canadians, is going to be accepted at destinations worldwide,” Trudeau told a news conference in Ottawa today.

The standardized COVID-19 proof of vaccination includes the holder’s name and date of birth, the number of doses received, the type of vaccine, lot numbers, dates of vaccination and a QR code that includes the vaccination history. Canadians can also request the proof by mail.

The documentation was designed with what the government calls a “common look” featuring the Government of Canada logo and the Canadian flag.

The official Canada wordmark on the top right of an Ontario vaccination proof document. (Government of Ontario)

The government said that as of today, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon are issuing the standardized proof of vaccination.

Trudeau said all the provinces and territories have agreed to issue the accepted credentials ahead of the holiday season.

“Not every province has yet delivered on that but I know they are all working very quickly and should resolve that in the weeks to come,” he said.

In Ontario, for example, fully vaccinated residents can download a QR code built to the SMART Health Card standard, which includes the Government of Canada “wordmark” or logo.

WATCH |  Canadians will be able to use their provincial vaccine certificates for international travel

Canadians will be able to use their provincial vaccine certificates for international travel, says Trudeau

10 hours ago

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that as more provinces and territories require the use of vaccine certificates, he is ‘confident’ that foreign governments will accept these documents from Canadians travelling internationally. 2:01

The SMART Health Card standard is a set of guidelines, approved by the International Organization for Standardization and endorsed by Canada, to store health information and is used by a number of tech companies, including Apple. 

The government said it’s talking to other countries to encourage them to recognize those who have received mixed vaccine doses as being fully vaccinated.

“This includes sharing Canada’s evidence and experience with mixed schedules of Health Canada-authorized vaccines for both AstraZeneca/mRNA and mixed mRNA doses,” says a government release.

“Initial outreach has focused on the ongoing exchange of technical and scientific information to advance this time-sensitive work.”

Proof can be used for domestic travel too

The standardized proof of vaccination can also be used when the requirement for proof of vaccination to travel domestically kicks in at the end of the month, although travellers can continue to use their old provincial proof of vaccination if their province is not yet issuing the standardized credentials.

As of Oct. 30, all travellers aged 12 and older taking flights leaving Canadian airports or travelling on Via Rail and Rocky Mountaineer trains must be fully vaccinated before boarding. Marine passengers on non-essential passenger vessels like cruise ships must also complete the vaccination series before travelling.

Mike McNaney is president of the National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents Canada’s largest air carriers — including Air Canada, Air Transat and WestJet. He said he welcomes the standardized approach and urged the government to ease off on other pandemic measures.

“With aviation becoming one of the only sectors requiring fully vaccinated employees and customers, it is imperative that the government work with us and determine what other travel measures can now be amended in keeping with global practices,” he wrote in a media statement.

“Such as elimination of blanket advisories against travel, elimination of mandatory PCR testing pre-departure for fully vaccinated international travellers coming to Canada, and enabling children under 12 to be exempt from de facto home quarantine.”

Officials said they considered other options, including federally issued credentials, but decided that would have “limited value” given that provinces and territories administered the shots and held the data.

They also said the global health travel advisories will soon adopt a destination-based approach, so that Canadians can better prepare travel plans.

Dispute over mandatory vaccine rule for MPs continues

Trudeau’s announcement comes as a fight brews over making vaccination mandatory for MPs ahead of Parliament’s return next month.

Earlier this week, the House of Commons’ governing body introduced a new mandatory vaccination policy for MPs and anyone else entering the House of Commons.

Conservatives said they oppose the “secret” move by the Board of Internal Economy and object to the idea of more virtual sittings of the chamber.

“While we encourage everyone who can be vaccinated to get vaccinated, we cannot agree to seven MPs, meeting in secret, deciding which of the 338 MPs, just elected by Canadians, can enter the House of Commons to represent their constituents,” said a statement from the party Wednesday.

 WATCH| ‘It’s not too much to ask’ — Trudeau discusses mandatory vaccination rule for MPs

‘It’s not too much to ask’ — Trudeau discusses mandatory vaccination rule for those working in the House of Commons

10 hours ago

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for MPs, which will be in place when Parliament resumes in November. 2:04

While the Conservative Party says that it supports vaccination as the “most important tool to get us out of this pandemic,” it did not require all of its candidates in the federal election to be fully vaccinated. It also didn’t reveal how many of its candidates were vaccinated.

Both the Liberals and NDP required that their candidates be vaccinated during the election campaign, though they did not extend that requirement to staff members. The Bloc Québécois said during the campaign that all of its candidates were vaccinated. The Green Party told CBC that both of its MPs have been fully vaccinated.

“It is puzzling to me that there are people out there that think that just because they are members of Parliament they do not need to keep themselves, their loved ones or their constituents safe, when the vast majority of Canadians have done the right thing,” Trudeau said Wednesday.

“It is on Mr. O’Toole to explain why he thinks people should not be fully vaccinated if they want to serve as members of Parliament, and why indeed he doesn’t even think there should be a hybrid model so those who aren’t fully vaccinated can still speak up for their constituents in the House of Commons.”

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