Pressed on why the Biden administration bought $1.3 billion worth of Chinese-made COVID-19 rapid tests being shipped to Americans, Jen Psaki insisted there wasn’t enough US capacity to meet domestic demand — despite some American manufacturing plants reducing production last year due to a drop in orders.
“The Chinese company Andon Health owns iHealth, which is one of the providers — they signed a $1.3 billion contract with the Pentagon last month for these tests,” Bloomberg News reporter Jennifer Epstein said at Psaki’s daily briefing.
“Is the administration concerned about [the] optics and messaging of sending something to Americans’ homes that says ‘made in China’ on it?”
Psaki said “[we] needed to meet a need that we had in this country for more tests [due to] a shortage of tests and the understandable demand from people across this country to get tests and make them free and accessible, which required us purchasing some of those tests from China in order to meet that demand.
“But that doesn’t change our commitment to increasing our US manufacturing to ensure that we will be able to meet that demand with products made here in the United States over the course of time,” Psaki said.
The contracts with the Chinese company — coming nearly two years into the pandemic — outraged some members of Congress as well as social media users who posted photos of test kit boxes that said “made in China.”
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) told the Washington Free Beacon that the contract was akin to “paying the arsonist for helping put out the fire” because the pandemic started in China — potentially through a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Chinese government also allegedly concealed early data about the virus, contributing to its global spread.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said the contract was “ridiculous” because China has “not been transparent one iota on what happened at Wuhan.”
Biden said in late December that he was launching an initiative to mail 500 million rapid tests to homes after the White House reportedly spiked an expert proposal in October for “Every American Household to Receive Free Rapid Tests for the Holidays/New Year.”
The belated distribution plan took about a month to launch as the highly contagious Omicron variant ripped through US cities, causing record-breaking numbers of new COVID-19 cases. Massive lines formed at official test sites and retailers such as CVS Pharmacy ran out of at-home kits.
Test kits ordered via COVIDtests.gov started to reach homes in late January as the Omicron wave began to subside.
The Chinese test-maker reportedly received the largest contract. The Defense Department said Jan. 13 that it had awarded three contracts for a combined 380 million test kits out of Biden’s initial 500 million. Bloomberg News later reported that iHealth received a $1.3 billion contract. Roche Diagnostics got a smaller $340 million award and Abbott Labs received a $306 million deal.
Critics blasted Biden for not being better prepared to address testing demand this winter. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) noted that Abbott Labs laid off hundreds of workers in her state last year due to a decline in demand for tests.
“The money was there. The manufacturers were ready. The employees were there. The manufacturing lines had been ramped up and the administration made a critical error in scaling back dramatically, in the midst of the pandemic, the number of tests that it ordered,” Collins said last month. “I just don’t understand it.”
Biden denied to The Post that his staff rejected the expert plan to mass-distribute tests before the holidays.
A White House official later argued that Biden was telling the truth and that “the characterization of ‘rejection’ is not an accurate reflection of a productive meeting, and in fact, we are implementing many measures that were discussed as capacity now allows us to do.”
In addition to calling for the mass distribution of test kits to homes, experts from Harvard, the Rockefeller Foundation and other organizations urged the White House during an Oct. 22 Zoom meeting to produce 732 million tests per month for a “Testing Surge To Prevent [a] Holiday COVID surge.”
Psaki has pointedly refused to say which Biden aides participated in the Oct. 22 meeting — including whether Biden’s chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci or CDC Director Rochelle Walensky attended — or say if Biden was consulted before the health experts were told three days later that their ideas would not be adopted.
Biden belatedly embraced the mass-distribution drive just days before Christmas as cases of the coronavirus surged.
Cases of COVID-19 are now dropping sharply in many parts of the country. As of Monday, there was a past-week daily average of roughly 446,000 new US coronavirus cases, down from an all-time average high of more than 804,000 on Jan. 15, according to CDC data.
Although the Omicron variant is less likely to cause severe illness and death — especially among vaccinated people — the tidal wave of infections caused COVID-19 hospitalization rates to exceed all prior US records and the country is still averaging about 2,300 daily deaths, the most since last winter when vaccines were not widely available.
The US intelligence community said in August that it’s possible the virus, which has killed nearly 900,000 US residents, leaked from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, calling the theory one of two “plausible” explanations along with natural transmission from animals.
Documents published in September by The Intercept revealed that US health officials indirectly funded “gain of function” research at the Wuhan lab that sought to better understand viruses by manipulating them — including modifying three bat coronaviruses distinct from COVID-19 and discovering they became much more infectious among “humanized” mice when human-type receptors were added to them.
With the exception of a written statement attributed to him in August, Biden said almost nothing publicly about the origins of the virus until his second solo White House press conference, where he claimed last month that he pressed Chinese President Xi Jinping to be transparent during a 3 1/2 hour virtual summit in November. Biden said that his own press team was unaware of him doing so because they weren’t in the room for the exchange.
First son Hunter Biden’s attorney Chris Clark said less than a week after President Biden’s November summit with Xi that he divested a 10 percent stake in an investment fund controlled by Chinese state-owned entities. Hunter Biden and the White House provided no further details.
That firm, BHR Partners, was registered 12 days after Hunter joined Vice President Biden aboard Air Force Two for a 2013 trip to Beijing.