Why did it take so long?
Last week thirty-eight mayors from major cities across America signed a letter to White House Covid Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, plainly observing the obvious about entry testing requirements: “The current policy is neither wise nor effective.”
It worked. The requirement has been lifted. The letter was the final straw to break the back of a rule that persisted despite never demonstrating the scantest evidence of any epidemiological benefit in the last 18 months. Amid mounting pressure from the public, the travel industry, and officials of both parties, the public health bureaucracy resolutely ignored all appeals to common sense.
But even now, the CDC is reportedly set to “reassess” the repeal in 90 days.
As with most ineffectual pandemic mitigations, misaligned incentives diverged the public interest from the interests of the technocrats creating policy. As a result, the US stood alone among peers in barring entry to travellers who tested positive for a virus that was already within its borders. Until the repeal, the rule caused immense stress for travellers, leaving some citizens stranded abroad, to the benefit of no one.
The policy existed only to feed itself. One well-connected startup found itself a primary beneficiary of what had effectively become a CDC-sponsored rent-seeking program. Since December 2020, “digital health solutions provider” eMed partnered with healthcare giant Abbott Laboratories to digitally certify results from Abbott’s BinaxNOW rapid antigen test. This digital certification was one of the only forms of self-administered test results accepted by the US for travel, and it was the most accessible by far.
For the service, eMed charged $150 for six tests or $70 for two. The only novel value eMed provides in this process is the certification of your test results, which itself only had value insofar as the US government continued to demand it. Put simply: the company would have had no product without the entry testing requirement.
eMed’s management ranks are filled prestigious individuals who could conceivably occupy roles within government one day. Indeed, eMed’s CEO — and former American Medical Association President — Patrice Harris was on the shortlist for an appointment in the Biden administration. Chairwoman Helene Gayle spent 20 years working for the CDC, according to the company’s website. Most glaringly, the company enlisted the services of former National Policy Director to the Pete For America presidential campaign, Sonal Shah, as its Chief Policy Advisor. One wonders what policies she might be advising on.
At the intersection of public policy and industry, you never know who may be regulating you one day and sitting on your Board of Directors the next. Abbott Laboratories, alone reported over $10 billion in revenue related to the sale of Covid testing products since Q1 of 2021. As a policymaker, what incentive is there to cause such disruption? Why risk rankling relationships that may be personally valuable one day? Who in the White House or at the CDC would have the fortitude to pull the plug any earlier than absolutely necessary?
We can recognise this incentive structure – one might call it an “industrial complex” – as the fusion of interests between public health and the private industry that supplies its provision. For the individuals involved, there is no good reason to suspect any corrupt intent. It is merely a system of incentives that encourages good-faith actors to behave in ways unaligned with the public’s interests.
The entry requirement was only lifted when professional repercussions for those responsible for the policy began to look likely. As for the travelling public, their needs, as they so often have been since 2020, were ignored.