Americans often pay far more than people in other developed countries for tests, drugs, and medical devices, and the pandemic has accentuated those differences. Governments abroad had been buying rapid tests in bulk for over a year, and many national health services distributed free or low-cost tests, for less than $1, to their residents. In the U.S., retailers, companies, schools, hospitals, and everyday shoppers were competing months later to buy swabs in hopes of returning to normalcy. The retail price climbed as high as $25 for a single test in some pharmacies; tales abounded of corporate and wealthy customers hoarding tests for work or holiday use.
U.S. contracts valued at $10,000 or more are required to be routinely posted to sam.gov or the Federal Procurement Data System, known as fpds.gov. But none of the three new rapid-test contracts — awarded to iHealth Labs of California, Roche Diagnostics Corp. of Indiana, and Abbott Rapid Dx North America of Florida — could be found in the online databases.
"We don't know why that data isn't showing up in the FPDS database, as it should be visible and searchable. Army Contracting Command is looking into the issue and working to remedy it as quickly as possible," spokesperson Jessica R. Maxwell said in an email in January. This month, she declined to provide more information about the contracts and referred all questions about the pricing to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Only vague information is available in DOD press releases, dated Jan. 13 and Jan. 14, that note the overall awards in the fixed-price contracts: iHealth Labs for $1.275 billion, Roche Diagnostics for $340 million, and Abbott Rapid Dx North America for $306 million. There were no specifics regarding contract standards or terms of completion — including how many test kits would be provided by each company.
Without knowing the price or how many tests each company agreed to supply, it is impossible to determine whether the U.S. government overpaid or to calculate if more tests could have been provided faster. As variants of the deadly virus continue to emerge, it is unclear if the government will re-up these contracts and under what terms.
To put forth a bid to fill an "urgent" national need, companies had to provide answers to the Defense Department by Dec. 24 about their capacity to scale up manufacturing to produce 500,000 or more tests a week in three months. Among the questions: Had a company already been granted "emergency use authorization" for the test kits, and did a company have "fully manufactured unallocated stock on hand to ship within two weeks of a contract award?"
Based on responses from about 60 companies, the Defense Department said it sent "requests for proposals" directly to the manufacturers. Twenty companies bid. Defense would not release the names of interested companies.
Emails to the three chosen companies to query the terms of the contracts went unanswered by iHealth and Abbott. Roche spokesperson Michelle A. Johnson responded in an email that she was "unable to provide that information to you. We do not share customer contract information." The customers — listed as the Defense Department and the Army command — did not provide answers about the contract terms.
The Army's Contracting Command, based in Alabama, initially could not be reached to answer questions. An email address on the command's website for media bounced back as out-of-date. Six phone numbers listed on the command's website for public information were unmanned in late January. At the command's protocol office, the person who answered a phone in late January referred all queries to the Aberdeen Proving Ground offices in Maryland.
"Unfortunately, there is an issue with voicemail," said Ralph Williams, a representative of the protocol office. "Voicemail is down. I mean, voicemail has been down for months."
Asked about the bounced email traffic, Williams said he was surprised the address — [email protected] — was listed on the ACC website. "I'm not sure when that email was last used," he said. "The army stopped using the email address about eight years ago."
Not a Modern Healthcare subscriber? Sign up today.