U.S. to expand monkeypox testing at commercial labs as outbreak grows

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The Biden administration is authorizing commercial laboratories to conduct monkeypox tests in an attempt to dramatically expand testing, federal officials told The Washington Post on Wednesday, as the United States confronts a record outbreak that experts fear is far larger than the official count of 142 cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started shipping test kits to five commercial laboratory companies this week, allowing health providers to order tests from the labs directly by early July. The companies include Quest Diagnostics, Sonic Healthcare, Labcorp, Mayo Clinic Laboratories and Aegis Sciences, according to a senior HHS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a forthcoming announcement.

“This development will facilitate increased testing, due to health-care providers being able to work with labs they have established relationships with, and supports our ability to more fully understand the scope and spread of the current monkeypox outbreak,” the official said.

Officials say the move could allow the nation to conduct tens of thousands of tests a week, rather than solely relying on a national network of public labs that can conduct 9,000 tests a week. But federal officials acknowledge they can be doing far more testing.

The United States has gone from conducting about 10 tests a day in early June to 60 tests a day last week, a senior Biden administration official told The Post.

“That’s a relative increase, but it’s not close to where we want to be,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the administration to answer questions about the monkeypox response.

Some public health experts say the failure to conduct more tests hampers the ability to identify the extent of the outbreak and contain it.

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Under the current system, clinicians must report suspected monkeypox infections to health department officials who decide whether the cases meet criteria to undergo testing at public labs. Critics say the process, which involves calling public health hotlines and answering extensive questionnaires, can be slow and cumbersome, dissuading doctors from seeking tests.

Monkeypox causes lesions and rashes that can be confused with other illnesses such as herpes and syphilis. Health officials say recent patient symptoms have been different than in past outbreaks, including rashes concentrated around the genitals and without an associated fever.

To test for monkeypox, providers must send a swab from a rash to a public lab that can identify whether the patient is infected by an orthopox virus, referring to the family of viruses that includes monkeypox. A positive result is presumed to be monkeypox because no other orthopox viruses are known to be circulating in the United States and is sent to the CDC for confirmatory testing.

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The test being used was developed by the CDC and cleared for use by the Food and Drug Administration.

Before making the test widely available to commercial labs, CDC needed to update those clearances, establish agreements with the five labs and ensure personnel had personal protective equipment and vaccinations to protect against infection, according to a senior public health official who also spoke on the condition of anonymity under the Biden administration’s ground rules.

With dozens of countries where the virus is not endemic reporting more than 3000 monkeypox cases, the World Health Organization is gathering Thursday is consider designating the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

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