How federal regulations helped spread COVID-19

In any crisis, we triage the issues we are facing, and our reactions proceed in relatively predictable ways. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different.

In the short term, we respond to the most urgent problems before we do anything else. That means that virtually all of our mental energy is poured into the need to respond.

Think, for instance, of what happened after the Sept. 11 attacks. First responders, both on the day of the attack and in the immediate days and weeks after, didn’t have time to consider much. They were too busy saving people’s lives and cleaning up the destruction to even have the bandwidth to consider it.

President Donald Trump opens a box containing a 5-minute test for COVID-19 from Abbott Laboratories as Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House on March 30. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

But over time, things slow down, and sooner or later, we start to reflect on what happened, and usually it leaves us dissatisfied and angry, and looking for someone or something to blame.

In the current global pandemic crisis we are living through, we’re still in that first phase. Right now, we don’t have a heck of a lot of time to care much about blame. But we will, and probably sooner rather than later.

When we do, most will point to the presidents, prime ministers and even entire countries — I’m looking at you, China — that we feel didn’t react appropriately. This is the low hanging fruit of our blame.

But there are some other places we need to look for blame, and one place I want to make sure we focus on is the suffocating leviathan that is the federal apparatus, because at a very critical moment in time, it paralyzed our ability to develop and distribute key testing for the virus.

In the early stages of the spread of the virus, quick and effective testing would have helped identify people who were sick faster, allowing for better quarantines, containing the spread more effectively.

But the testing kits developed by the government itself, which were sent out to public health laboratories across the country on Feb. 5, were garbage.

Worse, the day before the tests were sent, a health emergency declaration was issued, which triggered federal regulations requiring that any lab that wished to develop its own test for coronavirus to wade through an avalanche of government red tape, and apply for an “Emergency Use Authorization” from the Food and Drug Administration.

This ridiculous law exists because of the typical nonsensical bureaucrat logic that says that we can’t trust private laboratories in a public health emergency to develop anything unless they are blessed with permission from the government, because we are afraid they would market snake oil to the public.

Well, maybe. But the prohibition didn’t stop any manner of coronavirus related scams using that very same snake oil tactic from happening anyway, and there are always going to be essential oils marketed to gullible consumers claiming to cure COVID. You can’t expunge opportunistic profiteers with a regulation like this.

But you can dramatically slow the response of the private sector in their development of testing to pick up the slack from the failed government sanctioned test, which is exactly what happened.

Forcing private companies to apply for permission like this from the FDA meant that for many labs the waiting game began, as emails and phone calls went unanswered, and the arduous process of actually sending a physical copy of their work through the mail for it to be reviewed by government bureaucrats wasted time. Time, the precious commodity we have in a situation like this.

On Feb. 29, nearly a month later, the FDA changed its rules and issued new guidelines that allowed certain facilities that it deemed capable of handling “high-complexity testing” to begin their own COVID-19 tests. Finally, we were off to the races, and actual clinical trials could begin for the first time since the beginning of February.

The results have been incredible. Whereas it used to take two to seven days to process a test, labs all over the country have now developed new and innovative tests that give results much faster. The Cleveland Clinic developed a test that gave answers within eight hours, and test kits made here in Scarborough by Abbott Laboratories can now give you results in minutes.

These developments were only possible because the federal government was responsive enough to change course away from suffocating restrictions that they themselves set up, which wasted crucial weeks that could have helped us better contain the spread of the virus.

Remember that the next time bureaucrats try to tell you that new rules are being instituted to protect us from ourselves. In most cases, they do significantly more harm than the harm they seek to prevent.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.