WASHINGTON — As Congress moves closer to a COVID-19 relief deal, one outspoken epidemiologist is mounting a campaign to fund a large-scale deployment of inexpensive, rapid coronavirus testing that could be available to all Americans. 

What You Need To Know

  • Dr. Michael Mina says rapid antigen tests could help mitigate the spread of COVID-19

  • He is asking Congress to allocate $1 billion to increase the manufacturing ability for these types of tests

  • Congress is still working on a stimulus bill that could include $16 billion for testing, tracing, and vaccine development and distribution

  • PREVIOUS STORY: Epidemiologist: Cheap, Rapid, At-Home Tests Could End the Pandemic

“It won’t be perfect,  but it’ll be very close to it,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

Mina is calling on the federal government to completely overhaul its COVID-19 testing strategy. The main tests being administered right now, known as the PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), play an important role in diagnosing the virus. However, they require a laboratory to process results, and aren’t as effective as the newer, rapid, antigen tests when it comes to letting people know when they are most contagious. 

“It’s not a useful test for public health. Whereas a test that you can use everyday that gives you a result in minutes is actually a test you can use to know if your child coming home from school with COVID, are you able to go see your grandmother in the nursing home,” Mina explained in a Zoom interview with Spectrum News. 

"It even can be used at the entrance to restaurants and stores and businesses,” he added.

Adm. Brett Giroir, the federal government’s testing czar, also acknowledges the testing issues with the PCR tests. 

“I think PCR tests are not really the gold standard," he said in an interview with Spectrum News. "They were the only standard we had."

"You could be positive weeks after you are no longer infectious," he added. "Antigen tests are extraordinarily good at detecting people who are infectious."

Several rapid at-home tests are coming out on the market but they are not designed to be used on a regular basis and are expensive. Mina is calling on the federal government to fund and authorize cheap rapid paper strip tests, which, he says, have been proven effective. 

“We need $1 billion to increase the capacity to manufacture these and that could be spread across the five to eight companies that are really in a position to make these in the millions,” Mina said

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seem open to the idea.  

“Congress, I believe, would be willing to fund those type of rapid, more modern and accurate tests,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat who represents Florida’s 14th District.

Rep. Michael Waltz,R-U.S. House District 6, said he could also be open to providing funding to this kind of testing effort.

“I would certainly be very interested," he said. "We need that level of mass testing."

Mina believes altering the testing strategy could significantly curb cases. However, with outbreaks continuing at record levels, he worries the current level of infection could undermine the newly approved vaccine's effectiveness.

“The more cases you have when you start to roll out a vaccine like this, essentially, the more opportunity you have for the virus to figure out how to mutate in such a way that it can move around and figure out a way to bypass the vaccine immunity,” Mina said. 

“That is one of the things that keeps me up at night,” he added.

Congress is considering allocating about $16 billion for testing, tracing, and vaccine development and distribution. The details of relief bill are still in flux, as lawmakers inch closer to a deal. 

WATCH: Dr. Mina's Concerns on How the Incoming Administration Will Handle the Pandemic