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Blunt on COVID-19 “Shark Tank” Testing Program: “Let’s Break Some Records Here”

May 07, 2020

WASHINGTON – Yesterday, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (Mo.), Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, spoke on the Senate floor to discuss the “Shark Tank”-like effort he and U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) proposed and secured funding for in the latest coronavirus funding bill. The new program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), called RADx, brings together public and private-sector partners to speed up the development of COVID-19 diagnostic tests. According to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, more than 1,000 developers have already begun applying for the program in its first week.

Following are Excerpts From Blunt’s Remarks:

“Madam President, let me join with my good friend Senator Cardin in appreciating the incredible work that really so many federal employees have done to make these programs work. I was with the SBA Director, I think about two weeks ago on Friday. She said in the first 14 days of the PPP program, they did 14 months of loans in that 14-day period. I thought many times Secretary Mnuchin set these high standards for how quickly we would get to each of these points, and probably only later realized just how difficult it is to get the federal government to move. But this is a case where the federal government has moved, the Congress has moved, working together. …

“Certainly a number of our states are beginning to reopen, states like Missouri are opening in what I think is exactly the appropriate way. The governor has looked at the whole state and said ‘we're going to step back from our initial order in the entire state, we're going to remove that order,’ but he has then worked thoughtfully and carefully with the Mayor of St. Louis and the Mayor of Kansas City and the county executives and bigger counties, the Mayors of Columbia and Springfield and not gotten in fights with local officials about situations that they have every reason to know more about than he does, just like the governor of Missouri has every reason to know more than somebody in Washington, D.C., about when our state should reopen. I’m glad the president has let governors have that sort of authority, and I think in most states, including mine, governors have stepped back and let local officials assert their view of what should happen in the area where they have been elected to be responsible. And with that combination of things, we're going to reopen and begin to see the economy reconnect again like it has not connected for the last couple of months.

“At the same time, we have got these two fights. One is to save the economy and one is this important fight against the virus. I think in the two months since we went home after the CARES Act, I have spent most of my time working on the health care side of this. Senator Alexander is the authorizing chairman for these health care programs, I'm the appropriating chairman for most of them. Programs that certainly in the last months Americans have learned a lot more about than they ever knew about before.  …

“One of the things I have worked on hard has been to get that research funding at the National Institutes of Health where Dr. Fauci runs only one of the double handful of agencies at NIH, the infectious disease part of that. But the American people begin to see those things that the government does and also see that the government, like every other family or every other institution, doesn't respond to crisis with immediate efficiency but does begin to work its way toward a solution. So we have spent a lot of time together, Senator Alexander and I have, with FDA and with all of those other agencies, and what I see happening is a real willingness with the total backing of the Congress, a real willingness to get out there and try to move these solutions at a faster rate than we ever have before.

“Dr. Fauci said early on that if we develop a vaccine in 18 months, that would be the world record for a U.S.-developed vaccine from a new virus to having a vaccine available. We're trying to do everything we can, not only to meet that potential world record but to beat that world record. And how are we doing that? We're doing that with things like the ‘Shark Tank’ concept at NIH, that we specifically put $1 billion behind in the last bill. One billion dollars for a place where people would bring ideas for a vaccine, for therapy, for testing, and you would have that ‘Shark Tank’ environment begin to evaluate which of those ideas deserve the help of the federal government to push them forward faster.

“And how would we do that? How would we push them forward faster? Obviously, a vaccine is what we need to fully emerge in my view from this, therapies to deal with people who get the virus before we have the vaccine, and testing to know whether you have had it or not and hopefully have some level of immunity, or testing to know whether you have got it. And we have got to do better on all of those fronts. On testing, we need tests that are easier to take and get a quick response. We need millions of these tests that millions of Americans will take more than once. … And that's the kind of thing that will get us started. 

“So how do we get to that quick, easy response test? How do we get to that therapy and how would the ‘Shark Tank’ work? People bring in ideas. Let's assume that on testing that the ‘Shark Tank’ decides there are really ten of these that have real potential to work, and we're going to begin to advance them. Then at some point there are four of them that are still one or two steps away from being fully vetted, but you don't want to wait until they're fully vetted to go into production. So that's where another billion dollars in an agency called BARDA is, to take that billion dollars and find a private partner and say ‘we're going to go ahead and produce all four of these tests. We're going to have all four of these tests ready 30 days from now when we know which one works.’ Because 30 days really matters. Thirty days in getting back to school, 30 days in generating the economy. If you're 30 days ahead of where you would have been otherwise, you can put a lot of money behind that and still pay only a fraction of what we've been putting behind trying to stabilize the economy. ...

“So we're working hard to get ready to have those tests, the tests where you have a normal blood draw to check your cholesterol, you could say when you turn that to your doctor, also check for COVID-19 if they don't ask you if you want to check for COVID-19. Then they can say you have it and hopefully by the time that test is available, they can say you have it and you have enough of the antibodies, you have enough of what it took to fight this off, that you should have immunity up until the time we're likely to have a vaccine. That many Americans then know they're out there with no danger to themselves or no danger to others. That many Americans know that in all likelihood they can safely visit somebody they haven't been visiting for a while because they didn't want to take a chance of carrying a virus that now they know they can't possibly get. And so those kinds of things will make a real difference in our economy. …

“We need an all-out effort to get this economy going again. We need an all-out effort to get people's health secure. And once that's happened, I think we'll see all of those things come together. And so, Madam President, I think we've made great strides. …

“Let's break some records here. Let's do some things quicker with the same amount of safety that we've done in the past. There is a dynamic need to do this. The American people understand why it needs to be done. People all over the world would benefit from our leadership here. I think we're seeing it. Hopefully, we can continue on these efforts to have the bipartisan determination to win these two fights, the fight against the virus and the fight for the economy that the American people deserve.”


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