Coronavirus Questions Answered: Why Is There A Test Shortage?

The two main parts of the test both have complications. [Salov Evgeniy / Shutterstock]
There have been multiple complications with coronavirus testing. [Salov Evgeniy / Shutterstock]

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Melanie from Macedonia asked: What is it about the coronavirus test that makes it so difficult to produce on a mass scale? Isn't it just a long cotton swab?  How is it different from other medical tests?”

Access to testing has been a major challenge, nationally and internationally, according to University Hospitals’ Dr. Christine Schmotzer.

She said there are two main parts of the test, and both have had complications. The first part is the collection swab, which is used to collect the sample. It’s made from synthetic material that must be thin and flexible enough to collect the sample from the very back of the nose.

Schmotzer said typically, the United States has enough of these to get through a bad flu season. But with the pandemic, the demand couldn’t meet the supply, and alternative manufacturers were not initially set up to make the swabs.

The second part of testing is the viral test itself. Schmotzer said lab tests in the U.S. need FDA approval. Under normal circumstances, it could take a company over a year to be approved. This process has been sped up, but the labs still need time to make sure the tests work. She said a bad test might be worse than no tests.

With many labs and companies trying to create a test at the same time, Schmotzer said there have been shortages of key components of the tests.

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