Healthineers launches rapid coronavirus antigen test, sees tight supply

By Ludwig Burger

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Siemens Healthineers on Wednesday announced the launch of a rapid antigen test kit in Europe to detect coronavirus infections, but warned that the industry may struggle to meet a surge in demand.

The German group, whose rivals in diagnostics include Roche, Abbott and Becton Dickinson , said its test cassette did not require lab processing and would deliver results in 15 minutes, but that the required nasal swabs would have to be taken by healthcare professionals.

PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, which scan genetic code for the markers of a virus, are the gold standard for finding infections but are two to three times more expensive than antigen tests and require processing in a lab.

Antigen tests, which look for proteins found on the surface of the virus, cost about 4-5 euros ($5-$6) each, but miss a few percent of the infections that PCR tests would have caught.

Currently, slightly more than 1 million standard PCR tests are performed in Germany every week.

However, public health systems around the world are eager to provide quick diagnostic tools, and test more widely, to help locate hotspots of the pandemic.

Germany’s health ministry last week said it had secured 9 million antigen tests.

The regional state of Bavaria followed up this week with an order for 10 million antigen tests, saying it had options to purchase from Healthineers, Roche and Abbott. It did not give a timeframe for their use.

“The volumes that are being circulated globally are probably at the limits of what manufacturers can currently supply,” a Healthineers spokesman said.

“We are currently in talks with various governments over possible supply orders.”

The United States and Canada are also buying millions of tests, as is Italy, whose recent tender for 5 million tests attracted offers from 35 companies.

Healthineers is also planning to seek approval for a launch in the United States. ($1 = 0.8501 euros)

(Additional reporting by Caroline Copley; Editing by Riham Alkousaa and Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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How Medicine’s Long, Thin Supply Chain Threatens Americans

On the website of the Food and Drug Administration, there’s a page where the agency lists drugs that are in short supply in the United States. Last week, there were 90 entries on the list: antibiotics, drugs for anesthesia, compounds to light up veins and organs for imaging, immunosuppressives to prevent organ rejection, tube-feeding solutions, sedatives. For every type of medical problem, an important drug is off the market or in short supply—and this is routine.

In the fall, after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, something new joined the list, not a drug but a category of medical equipment: bags of sterile salt water. When the territory’s electrical grid went down, it took out several plants that make bagged saline for US manufacturer Baxter International. Few noticed at first, until this winter’s flu season got bad. One of the first things you do when someone arrives at a hospital weak and feverish is plug them into a quart bag of saline to rehydrate them. Another might be giving them drugs through a smaller bag hooked to an IV drip. In many hospitals, both were suddenly rationed.

Maryn McKenna (@marynmck) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. She writes about public and global health and food policy, and she is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. She is the author of Beating Back the Devil, Superbug, and Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats. She previously wrote WIRED’s Superbug blog.

Missing IV bags and missing pharmaceuticals seem like unrelated problems, a temporary disruption layered on top of a longstanding problem. But in fact, they are unavailable for the same reason. The United States has allowed the manufacturing of most of its drugs and medical devices to drift offshore, at the end of long, thin supply chains.

If a single hurricane can break one of those chains, undermining the delivery of medical supplies that Americans need every day, imagine the impact of a border-crossing epidemic or a regional military conflict or a natural disaster like the volcanic eruption that shut down most of Europe’s airspace in 2010.

This ought to be a matter of national security. So far, it’s not.

Most people don’t have contact with the ongoing drug and IV shortages, so they can come as a shock. “My wife’s nurse had to stand for 30 mins and administer a drug slowly through a syringe because there are almost no IV bags in the continental US anymore,” Ben Boyer, a former TV executive who lives in San Diego and whose wife is undergoing chemotherapy for brain cancer, tweeted on December 28.

To physicians, though, it’s hellishly normal. “I am on staff at several different hospitals in western Pennsylvania, and there are weekly emails: These are the fluids on shortage, these are the ones in stock,” says Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease physician and a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Center

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