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Blunt Successfully Pushes Proposal To Speed Up Coronavirus Testing

Sen. Roy Blunt answers questions in a press conference on Friday about adding apprenticeships to diversify education opportunities in America. 2/21/2020
File photo / Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Roy Blunt helped come with a plan to help speed up the development of coronavirus testing technology.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt helped put nearly $1 billion into the latest coronavirus bill for faster development of COVID-19 testing.

It’s an idea that Blunt and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander likened to the popular television show "Shark Tank," on which famous investors listen to entrepreneurs make a case that their product is worthy of financial backing.

“What we're hoping to do with the 'Shark Tank' idea is have both private-sector individuals and research institutions bring ideas to the NIH [National Institutes of Health],” Blunt said in an interview Thursday. “They'll set up a process to quickly evaluate the merit of those ideas, and the ones that are the most meritorious — we might want to become one of the partners in encouraging those ideas to move forward quicker than you normally would.”

Blunt and Alexander’s idea is part of the latest round of coronavirus legislation that’s expected to go to President Donald Trump’s desk on Thursday. The senators outlined the idea in an op-ed in the Washington Post:roughly $1 billion of funding would be given to NIH, which would then work with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to underwrite testing ideas.

Private-sector experts would be brought in to help evaluate proposals to make coronavirus testing more efficient — which Blunt said could pay dividends down the road.

“If coming out of the 'Shark Tank' [NIH Director] Francis Collins and others say, ‘Here are four things we think are likely to work; it would really be another 30 or 60 days before we'll know for sure,’ we might partner with a private-sector group and say, ‘Let's go ahead and start all four of these,’” Blunt said. “Two of them may not work. ... But when the ones that do work, they'll be available to people that much quicker than they would otherwise.”

Blunt said bringing in individuals from the private sector to examine proposals is not unusual for the NIH. 

“I think when you're becoming part of a process like that, one of the things you have to accept is you won't participate in anything that you would possibly have a personal financial interest in,” Blunt said. “What's good to find here is the real synergy between the private sector and government, that this whole 'Shark Tank' discussion has both in bringing people in to evaluate, bringing things in to be evaluated, and then government encouraging the private sector to take a little more risk than you normally would to get out there quicker in the process.”

The plan is part of a roughly $484 billion bill that passed the House later on Thursday.

That bill devotes roughly $322 billion for a small-business loan program that quickly ran out of money after the passage of another coronavirus bill known as the CARES Act. It also includes $75 billion for hospitals and about $25 billion for coronavirus testing.

It’s not out of the question that Congress will come back in the coming weeks and pass another bill aimed at combating COVID-19. Blunt noted that all of the bills that have been passed so far included money for research vaccines, therapies and testing for coronavirus. 

“I think we've front-loaded this particular element in a way where we think it gets us from where we are to the kind of test we need as soon as we could get there,” Blunt said.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.