President Donald Trump is falsely blaming the Obama administration for the slow rollout of U.S. tests for the new coronavirus, ignoring his administration’s own fumbles in responding to the health crisis and mischaracterizing Obama-era policies.
His comments, delivered to reporters at the White House on Wednesday, come as many Americans are asking how they can get tested for the dangerous virus to ensure it doesn’t spread unnecessarily through communities.
The Trump administration has faced sharp questions by state governors and Democratic lawmakers for the lack of tests available to doctors and hospitals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has acknowledged that its initial test kits didn’t work as designed and that new tests were needed -- delaying the government’s ability to detect and contain the spread of the virus.
At a briefing at the White House this week, Trump pointed the finger at the Obama administration, inaccurately suggesting that “a decision” made under President Barack Obama had tied the hands of his current administration.
“The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we're doing,” Trump said Wednesday. “And we undid that decision a few days ago so that the testing can take place in a much more accurate and rapid fashion.”
Under Obama, the Food and Drug Administration exercised only some oversight of large commercial test kits shipped across state lines. But there was little to no check done on single medical labs, former officials said.
“The FDA has generally not enforced premarket review and other applicable FDA requirements for laboratory tests,” the agency confirmed in a statement.
In fact, the lack of regulation of medical tests was so concerning to Obama aides that the FDA proposed the idea – and found bipartisan support on Capitol Hill – of increasing oversight of medical testing to protect patients from being given tests they don’t need or from inaccurate results.
But the Obama administration ultimately never acted on the proposal and it never became a regulation. Instead, in January 2017, it issued a “discussion paper” as it left the matter up to Trump.
Last Saturday, the FDA invoked a 2004 law – passed well before Trump or Obama took office – to specifically authorize coronavirus tests to be developed in private laboratories like hospitals and given to patients without prior federal approval.
Worth noting though is that this power was something Health Secretary Alex Azar and the FDA have had since coronavirus became a global health crisis in late January.
But standing next to Trump, Robert Redfield – head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – backed up Trump’s mischaracterization of Obama-era policy when it came to medical tests.
Redfield told reporters that “in the previous administration that became regulated” and that the recent move by the FDA allowed “regulatory relief.”
The White House and CDC did not respond to a request for comment.
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn called the agency's decision to make clear lab tests wouldn't run afoul of federal regulators was the “right balance” in the face of a health crisis. At the time of the policy change, the CDC said it had enough tests for about 75,000 people – a fraction of the tests health officials expect they will need.
“That means ‘X’ hospital in whatever state, whatever county, if they're certified, can develop their own laboratory based test. They notify us when that occurs, and then 15 days later provide us the validation data,” Hahn told reporters.
Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who is facing an outbreak of the virus in her state, has accused the administration of overestimating the number of tests that would become available to Americans and called on the administration to “do better.”
“People across Washington -- and the nation – are really scared,” she said during a hearing this week. “I’m hearing from people who want to get tested and believe they have been exposed – but nobody can tell them where to go.”
ABC's Ben Gittleson, Sophie Tatum and Stephanie Ebbs contributed to this report.