The Biden administration struck a $137 million deal to build a new factory in the U.S. to ramp up production of COVID-19 testing kits – but the new facility won’t be completed until late 2024 at the earliest.
MilliporeSigma, a brand formed by Germany’s Merck KGaA, will build a new factory in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the Defense Department announced as the U.S. hit a high record of 489,267 COVID cases on Wednesday
While the contract gives the company three years to complete the facility, it is not immediately clear when it will ramp up to full production, which is expected to pump out 83.3 million tests per month.
‘Construction is expected to begin the second half of 2022 and initial planning and preparatory work is already underway,’ a MilliporeSigma spokesperson told DailyMail.com. ‘We estimate that the facility will be capable of providing lateral flow membranes in the latter part of 2024.’
The individual said that the production of lateral flow membrane is ‘critical for rapid diagnostic tests’ that will not only help with COVID-19 detection, but also with ‘any future public health emergencies.’
The deal has fueled speculation that the administration is predicting high rates of testing capabilities for coronavirus detection will still be needed several years down the line.
Others have pointed out that the deal does not fix any immediate issues rising from testing kit shortages in the U.S., which has led to massive wait times at testing locations across the country.
‘Worldwide market demand for lateral flow membrane exceeds supply, and there is limited production capacity in the United States,’ the spokesperson said. ‘The current lack of domestic supply of lateral flow membrane impacts the United States’ ability to respond fully to the COVID-19 pandemic and any future public health emergencies.’
‘MilliporeSigma’s new lateral flow membrane facility will increase domestic supply, help alleviate shortage concerns, and add to the United States’ pandemic preparedness and response.’
The Pentagon released a statement Wednesday stating: ‘On Dec. 29, 2021, the Department of Defense (DoD), on behalf of and in coordination with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, awarded a $136.7 million contract to MilliporeSigma to establish nitrocellulose membrane production capacity in the United States.’
‘Nitrocellulose membrane,’ according to the statement, ‘is a critical material used in manufacturing SARS-CoV-2 rapid point-of-care tests.’
The facility will expand MilliporeSigma’s ability to manufacture nitrocellulose at the new facility that will support production of 83.3 million tests per month starting in 2025.
Money for the project is allocated through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed by President Joe Biden early in his presidency. It falls under the need to ‘support domestic industrial base expansion for critical medical resources.’
‘It’s probably the most constrained piece of technology in expanding capacity, in making more of these over-the-counter or point-of-care tests,’ an official told Reuters. ‘This amount they’re going to produce is roughly equivalent to another billion over-the-counter tests being able to be made.’
The official said the government is invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA) to award the contract, claiming there are several similar contracts in the works.
Biden has already used the DPA to speed production of swabs and pipettes for COVID-19 test production.
DPA is a 1950s Korean war-era national defense law giving federal agencies the power to prioritize procurement orders in times of war or national emergency.
The MilliporeSigma deal comes as nations face more urgency to produce testing as the highly-contagious Omicron variant spreads throughout the world – leading to some of the biggest-ever spikes in cases in the near two-year pandemic.
The United States has hit a record of nearly 500,000 daily coronavirus cases Wednesday – the most any country has ever reported – as experts say that the latest surge of infections will only get worse in the next month.
On Wednesday, 489,267 positive COVID cases were reported.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports anywhere from 40 to 70 per cent of new cases in America are from the Omicron variant, which was first discovered last month by South African health officials.
Earlier this month, Biden unveiled a plan to distribute 500 million at-home coronavirus tests, building on a prior pledge to invest $3 billion in the kits.
There are concerns Biden won’t be able to deliver on his promise for 500 million tests as it emerged Wednesday contracts for the order won’t be finished until early January and the administration is still ‘working to finalize’ how to distribute the kits.
Bidne’s coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said during the Wednesday White House COVID briefing: ‘Companies are already submitting information, and we expect the contract to be completed late next week.’
‘That means that the first deliveries for manufacturers will start January,’ he clarified. ‘We’ll set up a free and easy system, including a new website to get these tests out to Americans. We’re actively working to finalize that distribution mechanism, which includes a website where people will be able to order tests for free. And we’ll share more details in the weeks ahead — days and weeks ahead.’
Specific details have been scant about how the at-home test distribution will work and how long it will take for the tests to arrive once ordered. The questions come as long lines of Americans continue to form as people seek to get tested around the holidays.
Many Americans are forced to wait several hours to be tested for COVID as the U.S. is now averaging 300,387 new COVID cases per day.
The country smashed its previously daily average record of 264,546 cases as the highly-infectious new Omicron variant continued to sweep the nation.
The sudden spike has prompted warnings from experts that the virus will ‘threaten critical infrastructure’ in the US with workers at hospitals, grocery stores and gas stations forced into isolation.
Despite Omicron being milder than previous variants the sheer scale of the numbers means that ‘there’s a big hole’ in terms of what the US can expect in terms of deaths, according to Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
‘But what we do know and what is emerging here is that this country is going to be in the soup in just the next few weeks with so many cases and so many locations, that we’re going to see critical infrastructure as well as health care challenged,’ he told CNN.
Despite test shortages, case spikes and reimposed restrictions, the travel nightmare will also continue into mid-January as airline staff call out sick with COVID.
At least 1,071 flights were canceled and 1,564 are delayed Thursday as travel chaos drags into a seventh day, according to tracking website FlightAware.
JetBlue announced it has already cut 1,280 flights between December 30 and January 13 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Staffing shortages caused by COVID infections also led United Airlines to cancel 190 flights on Thursday, Delta said it canceled 86 and JetBlue reported 175 nixed flights.
Some passengers vented their fury on social media saying they were forced to wait on the tarmac for hours before being told to deplane. Others said the wait time at call centers was as long as 102 minutes as phone lines jammed.
Americans are also waiting in droves to be tested for COVID in cities across the country, demanding Biden fulfill his promise to have 500 million COVID at-home tests available after announcing Wednesday that the contracts for the order won’t be finished until ‘late next week.’
Aravindh Shankar, 24, flew to San Jose, California, on Christmas from West Lafayette, Indiana, to be with family. Though he felt fine, he decided to get tested Wednesday just to play it safe, since he had been on an airplane.
He and his family spent almost an entire day searching for a testing appointment for him before he went to a site in a parking lot next to the San Jose airport.
‘It was actually surprisingly hard,’ Shankar said about trying to find a test. ‘Some people have it harder for sure.’