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Inside the flawed White House testing scheme that failed to protect Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence
U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence

U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis is raising fresh questions about the White House’s strategy for testing and containing the virus for a president whose cavalier attitude about the coronavirus has persisted since it landed on American shores.

The president has said others are tested before getting close to him, appearing to hold it as an iron shield of safety. He has largely eschewed mask-wearing and social distancing in meetings, travel and public events, while holding rallies for thousands of often maskless supporters. 

The Trump administration has increasingly pinned its coronavirus testing strategy for the nation on antigen tests, which do not need a traditional lab for processing and quickly return results to patients. But the results are less accurate than those of the slower PCR tests. 

An early Abbott test used by the White House was plagued with problems, with multiple researchers finding that it was less accurate than rival companies’ tests in picking up positive cases. But the new antigen test the White House is using has not been independently evaluated for accuracy and reliability. Moreover, the Trump administration recently shipped antigen tests from Abbott and other manufacturers to thousands of nursing homes to test residents and staff.

Testing “isn’t a ‘get out of jail free card,'” said Dr. Alan Wells, medical director of clinical labs at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and creator of its test for the novel coronavirus. In general, antigen tests can miss up to half the cases that are detected by polymerase chain reaction tests, depending on the population of patients tested, he said.

The White House said the president’s diagnosis was confirmed with a PCR test but declined to say which test delivered his initial result. The White House has been using a new antigen test from Abbott Laboratories to screen its staff for COVID-19, according to two administration officials. 

The test, known as BinaxNOW, received an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration in August. It produces results in 15 minutes. Yet little is independently known about how effective it is. According to the company, the test is 97% accurate in detecting positives and 98.5% accurate in identifying those without disease. Abbott’s stated performance of its antigen test was based on examining people within seven days of COVID symptoms appearing.

The president and first lady have both had symptoms, according to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and the first lady’s Twitter account. The president was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday evening “out of an abundance of caution,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement.

Vice President Mike Pence is also tested daily for the virus and tested negative, spokesperson Devin O’Malley said Friday, but he did not respond to a follow-up question about which test was used.

Trump heavily promoted another Abbott rapid testing device, the