Close to a Million Could Be Tested for the Coronavirus This Week, Health Official Says 1

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said on Monday that nearly a million tests could be administered for the coronavirus in the United States by the end of this week, a significant escalation of screening as the American death toll reached six and U.S. infections topped 100.

Private companies and academic laboratories have been pulled in to develop and validate their own coronavirus tests, a move to get around a government bottleneck after a halting start, and to widen the range and number of Americans screened for the virus, Dr. Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said Monday at a White House briefing.

The testing expansion comes as the world moves in a more coordinated fashion to confront the virus and its threat to health and the global economy. The Group of 7 industrialized nations is expected to hold an emergency call on Tuesday to synchronize a multinational effort to stimulate economic growth, the first such effort since the global financial crisis more than a decade ago.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund signaled they were also ready to provide assistance, particularly to poor nations. Monetary policymakers from Japan to Europe on Monday pledged to act as needed to stem any economic fallout as infections spread. And U.S. stock prices soared, in part on expectations that the Federal Reserve Board could soon cut interest rates.

“We’re very excited about that,” President Trump said on Monday afternoon on his way to a campaign rally in North Carolina. “Our country is in great shape.”

But the virus’s spread was gaining speed, exceeding 90,000 infections and 3,000 deaths worldwide. An expansion of testing in the United States would undoubtedly raise the number of confirmed infections, administration officials said. King County, Wash., where four residents of a single nursing home have died, declared an emergency on Monday, and with more than a dozen schools in the region closed, the virus’s effect was beginning to be felt more broadly.

“We expect to have a substantial increase in the number of tests this week, next week and throughout the month,” Dr. Hahn said, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and top federal health officials.

White House officials tried to project calm. “The risk to the American people of the coronavirus remains low,” Mr. Pence, who oversees the Trump administration’s coronavirus efforts, told reporters at the White House.

Those reassurances contrasted with warnings delivered on Monday by top officials across the federal government. Officials at the F.D.A. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told congressional staff that the coronavirus death rate “won’t be as bad as the Spanish flu of 1918,” which killed as many as 50 million people worldwide, according to one person on the call and a person briefed on the discussion.

In the briefing, which was conducted by phone, the officials said that only 337 additional C.D.C. test kits were made available for distribution on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to two people on the call and the person briefed on the discussion who were not authorized to discuss it publicly. Each of those tests would cover about 350 people, officials said.

The officials added that they hoped that a private manufacturer could step in and provide 2,500 more kits by the end of the week. A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said that public health labs currently can test 15,000 people, and could test up to 75,000 by the end of the week, numbers that fall well short of what Dr. Hahn indicated private labs could handle.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with NBC on Monday that the virus had “reached outbreak proportions and likely pandemic proportions.”

Yet in several appearances on Monday at the White House, the president continued minimizing the risks of the outbreak.

In an Oval Office meeting with President Iván Duque Márquez of Colombia, Mr. Trump suggested that there could be a “cure” for the new coronavirus. But that assertion has been widely disputed by scientists, who have warned the public that it could linger globally for many years without one, much like the common cold, a closely related illness. The president also claimed that there were “not very many” cases of the coronavirus in the United States.

Later Monday, at a meeting with pharmaceutical executives, Mr. Trump said that “we will continue to do exactly what we’re doing,” even as he hinted that he may announce new travel restrictions from a number of unnamed nations. Mr. Pence said that the Trump administration would screen all travelers on direct flights to the United States from Italy and South Korea, where thousands of coronavirus cases have appeared in recent weeks.

A senior administration official said that the White House had talked about a broader ban on travel, among other options, but that Mr. Trump had not made a decision.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Pence discussed the virus with the nation’s governors, and later joined the president in the meeting with pharmaceutical companies where Mr. Trump said he heard that a vaccine would be ready in three to four months. Dr. Fauci, who was in the room, clarified that deploying a vaccine was at least a year away.

The drug company executives told Mr. Trump that it would still take a year to 18 months to produce a viable vaccine in quantities for widespread use.

“That’s going to require testing periods,” Dr. J. Joseph Kim, the chief executive of Inovio Pharmaceuticals, said in an interview after the White House meeting. “Obviously we’re working at warp speed on this. Just think — we didn’t even have ‘coronavirus’ in our vocabulary until early January.”

Dr. Kim said his firm would begin human trials of a vaccine next month, but it would take until the end of the year or early next year to be ready for the broader public.

“We can produce as much as one million doses by the end of this year using our existing capacity and resources,” he said. “But we need help from the U.S. government and resources it could bring to scale. If we have a successful vaccine, we need to make hundreds of millions of doses.”

Several other companies are also working to develop a vaccine, and one of them, Moderna Therapeutics, said last week that it had delivered its experimental version at a record-setting pace to the National Institutes of Health for early testing in humans, the first drugmaker to do so. Mr. Trump will visit the National Institutes of Health on Tuesday afternoon.

As C.D.C. and F.D.A. officials spoke with congressional staff on Monday afternoon, top lawmakers were rushing to work out an emergency virus spending bill, hoping to pass it before a mid-March break. The legislation, which could be unveiled Tuesday, is expected to be $7 billion to $8 billion.

Lawmakers were also negotiating the possible inclusion of language to ensure vaccine affordability, a demand of Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the two Democratic leaders.

Lawmakers and their offices were also preparing to take additional precautions on Capitol Hill, given the influx of both employees and tourists on a daily basis. Ms. Pelosi invited other congressional leaders — Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader; Mr. Schumer; and Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the minority leader — to attend a briefing with Capitol officials on the coronavirus response on Wednesday.

“We’re in the process of determining what precautions, if any, to take here at the Capitol to protect those who work here and visit here,” Mr. McConnell told reporters on Monday.

A senior Democratic aide said there had been no discussions of shutting down public galleries or limiting tours.

As local officials around the country raced to keep up with the virus’s spread and assess the risk to schools and businesses, public health experts continued criticizing the speed with which the Trump administration has designed a test and permitted states to use one. The C.D.C. at one point had insisted that only its test — and not one developed by the World Health Organization, for example — could be used on suspected cases, and even C.D.C. tests would be administered under limited circumstances.

“In New York State, the person who tested positive was only the 32nd test we’ve done in this state. That is a national scandal,” Dr. Matt McCarthy of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital said on CNBC.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said on Monday at a news conference that a person-to-person spread of the disease in New York City was “inevitable,” a day after confirming that a Manhattan woman had contracted the virus while in Iran and was now isolated at home.

The plodding pace of federal testing was partly the result of a faulty version of the test kit that the C.D.C. had sent to states, a consequence of scaling up manufacturing. The kit was capable of testing for the coronavirus but falsely identified other viruses.

As of Monday, the agency said it had tested fewer than 500 people for the virus, and the part of its website tracking that number was taken down.

Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said it was clear that the problem around testing at the C.D.C. was much more about leadership than science.

“We have been so focused on keeping the virus out of the country,” she said. “If we truly believed, as many of us have been arguing, that it was highly likely there were already cases in the U.S., I think we would have been asking tougher questions about how we could get testing capacity online.”

Restrictions on testing have severely constrained local health departments, which were desperate to catch up with and contain the spread. Dow Constantine, the executive of King County, Wash., said the county was preparing to buy a motel in the Seattle area where people who were infected with the coronavirus could stay to remain isolated.

On Saturday, the F.D.A. said that hundreds of academic medical centers that have developed and validated diagnostic materials for the virus could begin testing patients immediately, even before the F.D.A. completes an emergency authorization review, which laboratories run by states and private companies have also applied for.

The C.D.C. has also announced that labs with two of three working components in its test kit could go ahead and use the tests, and it has broadened the criteria to include people who had traveled to places with coronavirus infections outside China.

Gathering evidence in scientific settings is crucial at this stage of the outbreak, as researchers examine genomes of current infections. Some in Washington State said that similarities between cases there suggest the virus may have been spreading in the state for weeks.

In one case, health officials scrambled to retrace every step of a man who had tested positive for the coronavirus, tracking down eight people he had been with at a lunch and 37 more who were in a clinic where he sought medical help. They also contacted people on a flight he was on to the United States.

Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.