13 Investigates: A&M furious as top PhDs sidelined during COVID-19 response

ABC13 Houston

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KTRK) — As Texas spends another week among the worst in the nation when it comes to COVID-19 tests, Texas A&M University System said it could help boost the numbers by thousands every day if it weren’t for “some bureaucrat whose job no doubt is to enforce one rule.”

But, because the coronavirus tests previously analyzed at the university’s Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory were on animals instead of humans, the federal government had denied its request to use its labs and medical experts to process coronavirus tests for humans.

Federal regulations say a lab director needs experience on humans.

With labs in College Station, Amarillo, Gonzalez and Center, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp said it has the largest public lab in Texas and conducts 64,000 PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, tests a year on animals.

Sharp said it’s the exact same test used for humans, and if given the OK, the facility could run as many as 3,400 tests daily at those four locations.

“The reason we have huge volume … is because we may have to go into a place in Gonzales, Texas and (test) 20,000 chickens,” Sharp said, adding they test chickens and cows to catch diseases like bird flu before they transfer to humans. “We could use our lab to do about 3,400 additional tests today, which would increase testing in Texas by about 20 percent.”

RELATED: ‘Numbers could be underrepresented’ as request for COVID-19 tests unfulfilled

For weeks, state and local officials have said more testing is a key component in identifying hotspots and getting the economy back up and running.

As he announced his reopening plan for Texas on Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott said the state would soon be able to test 25,000 people a day for the coronavirus.

“When you aggregate all of the tests run by the state and local governments with the rapidly increasing number of tests run by the private sector, we should easily exceed our goal of 25,000 tests per day,” Abbott said earlier this week.

RELATED: Texas COVID-19 testing among worst in nation

But, data for the past week shows Texas conducted only 66,531 tests, which is the equivalent of about 9,500 tests daily, according to a 13 Investigates analysis of data from the COVID Tracking Project. Texas is conducting 10,856 tests per 1 million residents, putting it in 48th place nationwide when compared to testing per capita in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Hoping to boost the state’s testing numbers, Texas A&M applied for a waiver to start testing on humans, but says its application for certification was rejected. The university wrote a letter to federal officials on April 15 again seeking reconsideration to be able to temporarily test humans during the pandemic.

Although it was given the ability to conduct some coronavirus tests with supervision from a local health care provider, Sharp said the labs are not being utilized to their full potential.

“The people in these labs are PhDs who’ve been there for 10 to 20 years doing the exact same kind of tests,” Sharp told 13 Investigates’ Ted Oberg. “You’ve got a place like Amarillo that’s a hotspot … because of the beef processing center (outbreak). We have a lab right there on site and they won’t let us do it. So whoever is in charge of testing in Washington, D.C. needs to call whoever this bureaucrat is and say ‘open the damn thing up and allow Texas to increase its tests.'”

13 Investigates asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services why, despite letters and emails from Texas A&M and a U.S. congressman, the waiver to start testing humans has not yet been fully approved.

The U.S. HHS’ Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said Friday it is “working closely with laboratories across the country to ensure that those seeking to perform COVID-19 testing can begin testing as quickly as possible.”

A spokesperson for CMS told 13 Investigates that it is processing the application and that the university had met the requirements to begin testing at one of its labs. But for the university, that’s not enough.

“The work-around these bureaucrats have favored only provides for one-third of the total testing capacity of our College Station lab. The waiver we seek would allow us to open up all of our labs to their fullest capacity. They are confusing the issue while people die,” Sharp told 13 Investigates on Friday afternoon.

Statewide, there’s been about 6,400 new COVID-19 cases and nearly 200 fatalities reported over the last seven days, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Amid the new cases and deaths, Texas’ stay-at-home order expired at the end of April, allowing restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters and malls to open at 25 percent capacity.

With the potential for more people out in the community, Sharp said that makes the work his distinguished lab can provide even more important.

“Testing in the key to opening up our economy,” he said. “If you’re going to open up Houston, if you’re going to open up Amarillo and all those places, everyone knows that testing is the key. And the problem is, there’s an arcane rule that says you have to have human experience in order to test these kinds of things.”

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