Dr. Scott Gottlieb rips U.S. Covid testing system, says don't expect it to be fixed until fall

  • The U.S. Covid testing system is "discontinuous" and "problematic," Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC Tuesday.
  • "The samples aren't getting to the places that have the capacity in a lot of cases," the former FDA chief said.
  • He said he expects by the fall, the U.S. could have a more cohesive lab-based testing system.

The coronavirus testing system in the U.S. needs a major overhau for quicker results, Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Tuesday: He also warned Americans against expecting any quick fixes.

"The system we have right now — as discontinuous as it is and problematic as it is — it really built up organically, and that's part of the problem," the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner said on "Squawk Box." "You don't have an efficiently run system because no one really built this rationally."

Even so, over the course of the nearly yearlong pandemic, Gottlieb said the U.S. has reached a point where it can do a "tremendous amount of testing." He noted on some days more than 2 million new tests are conducted. The country's seven-day average is nearly 1.8 million new tests per day, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project.

"I think it's the way the system is organized right now that the samples aren't getting to labs that have the capacity quickly enough so people can get back a timely result," he said. "There are a lot of PCR-based testing platforms but the samples aren't getting to the places that have the capacity in a lot of cases, so it's an organizational challenge right now."

Polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests are the most-accurate kind of Covid test and involve a nasal or saliva sample being sent to a lab for processing. Rapid antigen tests can play an important role, Gottlieb said, particularly for people who are exhibiting Covid symptoms. But even someone who tests positive through a rapid screening may need a PCR test to confirm their infection, he said.

In the near term, Gottlieb said he expects the turnaround time for Covid test results to improve because the demand diagnostic tests is going to come down. "The infection rates are coming down," said Gottlieb, who led the FDA in the Trump administration from 2017 to 2019.

The U.S. is seeing 146,019 new coronavirus cases per day, based on a seven-day average, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. That's down from a seven-day average of 176,114 on Jan. 23.

"People, when they're less likely to have an infection, less likely to be symptomatic, they're less likely to get a test," Gottlieb said. That's a positive development, he said, because it will take time to make the U.S. testing system more cohesive and smooth out the organizational challenges. He said he does not expect there to be large-scale improvements by summertime, suggesting the fall is a more realistic target.

Even though millions of Americans have been vaccinated against Covid-19, there will still be a need for testing then, Gottlieb said. "We need to build this out for the fall when testing volumes are going to come up again and we're going to be pressed again," said Gottlieb, who is on the board of Pfizer, which makes a Covid vaccine.

"We need to be able to do three, four million tests a day and get back a result back within 24 hours or else … it's useless," he added. "A PCR-based result that takes more than a day or two isn't useful."

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic testing start-up Tempus, health-care tech company Aetion Inc. and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings' and Royal Caribbean's "Healthy Sail Panel." 

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