Britain hits coronavirus testing target as death toll leaps again

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain has hit its target of carrying out 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day, health minister Matt Hancock said on Friday, stressing that the programme was crucial to helping ease a national lockdown.

Hancock also announced that the British death toll had risen by 739 to 27,510 deaths – just below that of Italy which was one of the first and worst-hit European states.

Hancock set the target of 100,000 tests by the end of April after being criticised for moving too slowly on mass testing compared to other countries like Germany.

Since then, the government has increased the number of drive-through testing sites, begun sending out home tests and has rapidly expanded the number of people eligible to apply for a test.

At Friday’s news conference, Hancock said 122,347 tests were conducted in the 24 hours to 0800 GMT.

“This unprecedented expansion in British testing capability is an incredible achievement,” he said.

“Testing is crucial to suppress the virus … It helps remove the worry. It helps keep people safe, and it will help us to unlock the lockdown.”

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday that Britain had passed through the coronavirus peak, and promised to set out next week how the country will return to normal life.

A mass testing programme to gauge the spread of the virus through the population is seen as key to any easing of the social distancing measures that have all but shut down the economy and forced millions to stay at home.

The number of tests carried out each day has increased rapidly in recent days, and has risen from levels of around 10,000 per day in early April.

Political opponents the Liberal Democrats immediately accused Hancock of manipulating the data on testing.

Addressing questions over how the number had been collated, testing programme coordinator John Newton said that home testing kits were being included in the number of tests completed at the point they were sent out, not when they were analysed.

Johnson and his government have been criticised not only for not quickly stepping up testing, but also for moving slowly on bringing in the lockdown and for a lack of protective equipment for health workers.

Britain is set to be one of the worst-hit countries in Europe and it is all but inevitable the government’s response to the outbreak will be subject of an inquiry afterwards.

Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer renewed his criticism of the prime minister in an interview with the Evening Standard newspaper, saying Johnson had been “slow, slow at every turn”.

He called for testing to be ramped up to a quarter of a million tests every 24 hours and for 50,000 contact-tracers to be deployed to keep the nation safe.

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Think Wall Street's back to normal? Not so fast, options markets say

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Options investors are preparing for more volatility ahead despite last month’s sharp rebound in U.S. stocks, reflecting doubts that markets will be quick to return to their former highs in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Market turbulence has plunged alongside stocks’ climb since late March, with the Cboe Volatility Index , known as “Wall Street’s fear gauge,” last at 37.19 on Friday after peaking above 80 in mid-March. The S&P 500 .SPX rose 12.7% in April, its biggest monthly percentage gain since 1987, and has climbed more than 27% from its March 23 closing low.

In another bullish sign, the front end of the S&P 500 volatility term structure, which plots volatility expectations over time, is no longer inverted, suggesting that worries over a near-term stock reversal are subsiding.

But while the lightning-quick rebound has taken the S&P to within 16% of its all-time high, some investors are betting market gyrations may return in coming months as the economic consequences of the coronavirus become more apparent. Those wagers run counter to the expectations of more bullish market participants, who believe stocks are unlikely to revisit their March lows.

“There’s more systemic risk being priced, which would be more consistent with concerns over an economic recession,” said Benjamin Bowler, global head of equity derivatives research at Bank of America.

Expectations of more volatility to come are partially reflected in the VIX, which is still comparatively high – the index stood at less than half its current level in late February, before worries over the coronavirus’s spread outside of China shattered a months-long period of relative market calm.

And medium- and long-term VIX futures have risen over the past month, indicating that investors expect markets to remain volatile despite April’s dramatic rally.

Such longer-term volatility would be consistent with past global crises, when markets were hit with multiple waves of selling over many months, investors said.

“To us, it doesn’t feel like a true risk-on-type environment,” said Matt Thompson, managing partner at options firm Thompson Capital Management.

Possible triggers for such turbulence run the gamut from a resurgence in cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, signs that the U.S. economy has taken a worse-than-expected hit from shutdowns across the country, or political risk tied to the U.S. presidential election later this year.

Investors are also continuing to hoard put options, used for downside protection, despite the market rally. Over the past few weeks, skew, a measure of demand for puts versus calls, which are used for upside positioning, has risen on the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY.P), a popular exchange-traded fund that tracks the S&P 500.

Volatility markets are behaving similarly to past global economic shocks, such as the global financial crisis of 2007-2009 and the Greek debt crisis of 2011, Thompson said. The S&P 500 took about 10 months to return to its 2011 highs after the Greek debt crisis and more than five years to mark fresh record highs after the global financial crisis.

“Going back to the financial crisis, a VIX of 20 or 30 was relatively normal,” said Jon Cherry, head of options at Northern Trust Capital Markets. “That’s the neighborhood we live in today.”

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India extends nationwide lockdown, to allow relaxations in lower-risk zones

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI (Reuters) – India said on Friday it would extend its nationwide coronavirus lockdown for another two weeks after May 4, but would allow “considerable relaxations” in lower-risk districts marked as green and orange zones.

Some activities will remain prohibited throughout the country, regardless of the zone, the ministry of home affairs said in a statement.

Those include travel by air, rail and metro and inter-state movement of people by road; and schools and colleges, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, cinema halls and places of worship will remain closed.

There will be no restriction on movement of goods between states and on the manufacturing and distribution of essential items, the ministry said.

Authorities are trying to chart a path out of the world’s biggest lockdown, which they credit with preventing an exponential surge in infections and which Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed on March 25.

Authorities have mapped the country into red, orange and green zones, depending on the severity of the outbreak. Health Secretary Preeti Sudan detailed the plan in a letter to regional officials that was seen by Reuters.

The biggest and most economically-important cities, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Ahmedabad, would all be classed as red zones, infection hotspots, and kept under strict lockdown.

To qualify as a green zone, eligible for quicker lifting of restrictions, an area would have had to report no new infections for three weeks. The classifications would be “dynamic” and updated at least weekly as conditions change, Sudan wrote.

India has reported more than 35,000 cases and 1,147 confirmed deaths from the virus. The true extent of infection may be higher in a country where millions of people do not have access to sufficient healthcare.

The shutdown has pummelled India’s economy, depriving millions of day labourers of income and stranding rural migrants in cities where they can no longer afford rent or food.

The government issued an order on Friday to provide special trains for stranded migrant workers, pilgrims, tourists and students to return home.

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Rwanda will start to ease coronavirus lockdown from Monday

KIGALI (Reuters) – The Rwandan government will allow limited movement of people and allow restricted openings of businesses including restaurants and hotels from next Monday as it starts to ease its coronavirus lockdown.

Movement between provinces in the central African country will still not be allowed, while schools will also remain shut until September, according to a government statement released late on Thursday.

“All resumed services must adhere to health guidelines … mask wearing and social distancing,” it said.

Rwanda alongside neighbouring Uganda implemented some of the strictest lockdown measures in Africa to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, including shuttering all but the most essential businesses.

As of Thursday Rwanda had 243 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and no deaths.

Under the loosened lockdown restaurants will be allowed to open up to 7 p.m. Hotels will also be allowed to open, but only guests will be allowed on the premises in the evenings. Bars, and churches will remained shuttered.

Tourism is a major source of income for Rwanda, with visitors especially drawn to see its mountain gorillas.

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Britain's daily testing target may have been met: minister

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain might have hit its daily target of carrying out 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day, or will come close, putting in place the beginnings of a network to test, track and trace people through the pandemic, housing minister Robert Jenrick said on Friday.

After weeks of being criticised for moving too slowly on testing for the novel coronavirus, health minister Matt Hancock set the target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, increasing the number of drive-through testing sites and sending out home tests to a wider number of eligible people.

With Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying Britain had passed through the coronavirus peak, a mass testing programme to gauge the spread of the virus through the population is seen as key to any easing of the social distancing measures that have all but shut down the economy and forced millions to stay at home.

“I don’t have the figures yet, they’ll be published later today. But it looks like we’ll either meet the target or come close so we will have very significantly increased the amount of testing in this country,” he told BBC TV.

“It’s an important stepping stone. We’ve now built the beginnings of the network that we’ll need of testing, tracking and tracing for the next phase of fighting the virus.”

Johnson and his government have been criticised not only for not quickly stepping up testing, but also for moving slowly on bringing in a lockdown and for a lack of protective equipment for health workers.

With more than 26,000 deaths, Britain is set to be one of the worst-hit countries in Europe and it is all but inevitable the government’s response to the outbreak will be subject of an inquiry afterwards.

Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer renewed his criticism of the prime minister in an interview with the Evening Standard newspaper, saying Johnson had been “slow, slow at every turn”.

He called for testing to be ramped up to a quarter of a million tests every 24 hours and for 50,000 contact tracers to be deployed to keep the nation safe.

Britain carried out more than 81,000 tests on Wednesday, a leap from early last month when only 10,000 people were being tested in what the country’s national testing strategy coordinator, John Newton, called “an extraordinary achievement”.

“As we move to the next phase the requirement for testing will change and we can now respond quickly with the testing capability needed,” he said in a blog on Thursday.

“Our ultimate goal is that anyone who needs a test should have one … Testing will help to keep it (the infection rate) under control once we are out, but lack of testing has not kept us in lockdown a day longer.”

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Coronavirus: Victoria Beckham backtracks on furloughing fashion label staff after outcry

Victoria Beckham has reversed her decision to furlough about 30 staff at her fashion label.

The designer, 46, placed some of her employees on the government’s business scheme to help firms navigate choppy waters during the coronavirus pandemic.

She faced criticism from the public for her application to the scheme, as her combined net worth with husband David is estimated to be £335m, according to The Sunday Times 2019 Rich List.

A spokeswoman for the business has confirmed to Sky News that the decision had been reversed.

In a statement, she said: “Victoria Beckham Ltd has been working hard to protect its people and, while adjusting to the impact of COVID-19 and the government lockdown, our decision to furlough a small number of our staff seemed the most appropriate option in keeping with many other businesses.

“The situation is dynamic, and, with the support of our shareholders, we now believe we can navigate through this crisis without drawing from the government furlough scheme. Our application was made in the best interests of trying to protect our staff, and that is still our absolute focus.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure we can achieve that without using government assistance.”

The employees will return to work on 11 May.

The luxury clothing brand, which launched in 2008, has faced financial difficulty in recent years.

In November, accounts revealed Victoria Beckham Ltd suffered losses of £12.3m in the year to December 2018 after facing a fall in sales.

Ralph Toledano, chairman of the business, said sales of its clothing and accessories stagnated during 2018 after years of growth.

But the performance was in line with shareholder expectations after “cutting costs, focusing on its digital channels and refining the product to more closely reflect Victoria Beckham’s aesthetics and values”, the business said.

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Malaysia reports 69 new coronavirus cases with 1 new death

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia reported 69 new coronavirus cases on Friday, bringing the total number of infections in the country to 6,071.

The number of fatalities rose by one to 103.

Earlier on Friday, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said Malaysia would allow the majority of businesses to resume operations from May 4, partially easing restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the outbreak.

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UPDATE 1–Spain's GDP, battered by pandemic, to contract 9.2% in 2020 – economy minister

(Adds figures, quotes)

By Belén Carreño

MADRID, May 1 (Reuters) – Spain’s gross domestic product (GDP) will contract 9.2% in 2020, Economy Minister Nadia Calvino said on Friday, as the coronavirus pandemic wrought havoc on the economy.

GDP is expected to recover in 2021 and expand 6.8%, Calvino said.

The Bank of Spain expected an “asymmetric V-shape recovery, with the deepest decrease in the second quarter and then a strong and gradual recovery in the second half of the year,” she said during a press conference.

“Forecasts are prudent and consistent.”

On Feb. 11, prior to the imposition of a nationwide lockdown to counter the pandemic, Calvino had forecast 2020 GDP growth at 1.6%.

The government also revised the 2020 deficit forecast to 10.34% and a 2020 debt to GDP ratio at 115.5%. This compared to a deficit goal of 1.8% of GDP given in February.

“This is the widest deficit since 2012 when Spain reached 10.7%,” Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero said during the same press conference.

Unemployment for 2020 was forecast to rise to 19%, easing to 17.2% in 2021. In February, the unemployment rate had been forecast to end 2020 at 13.6%.

Until the pandemic hit, the Spanish economy – the euro zone’s fourth largest – had consistently outperformed much of Europe since it emerged from a five-year slump in 2013.

Spain has had one of the world’s worst outbreaks with more than 24,000 COVID-19 fatalities and in mid-March imposed one of the strictest lockdowns, though officials are confident the worst has passed and started easing restrictions over the past few days and plans to further soften the lockdown gradually in May. (Reporting by Belen Carreno, Editing by Angus MacSwan and Inti Landauro)

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Republican U.S. senators to introduce COVID-19 data privacy bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A group of key Republican U.S. senators said Thursday they are introducing proposed legislation to address consumer privacy concerns surrounding technology companies’ efforts to use personal data to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Senator Roger Wicker, who chairs the Commerce Committee, and other key Republicans introduced the bill that would “hold businesses accountable to consumers if they use personal data to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.” The bill would allow technology companies to develop “platforms that could trace the virus and help flatten the curve and stop the spread – and maintaining privacy protections for U.S. citizens,” said Republican Senator John Thune.

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Special Report: FDA's lax rules on coronavirus blood tests open U.S. market to dubious vendors

(Reuters) – As the coronavirus pandemic engulfed the United States, Joe Shia, a consultant to Chinese medical companies, said he was bombarded with inquiries from American firms who saw a golden opportunity in selling tests to determine coronavirus immunity.

Unlike his typical clients, some firms seeking his help had never before sold medical equipment. Others wanted to register test kits with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration without approval from the manufacturer, or to offer home-based tests, which are not allowed by the FDA. One was in the window business, he said.

“They replace windows and do window cleaning,” said Shia, adding that he did not do business with the company. “That is just awful – think about it. Someone who doesn’t know anything about medical devices.”

As demand escalates for blood antibody tests to determine who might be fit to release from lockdown, an array of distributors with no background or established competency in medical testing have joined experienced companies in an all-but-unregulated marketplace, Reuters found. The rush to obtain, advertise and find buyers for test kits follows the FDA’s unprecedented decision last month to allow any company to sell antibody tests in the United States without prior review by the agency.

Pounded by criticism for a delay in expanding diagnostic tests for coronavirus infection, the FDA has swung in the opposite direction in overseeing tests for coronavirus immunity. This take-all-comers approach, Reuters found, has provided an entree for questionable vendors and middlemen — including an electronics salesman hawking an unauthorized home test kit and a former physician convicted in a fraudulent gold-peddling scheme.

“There are literally dozens and dozens of companies jumping out of the blue that I’ve never heard of, and they are saying to us that, ‘If you put money up front before we deliver tests, we can put you first in line for our allocation,’” said Stefan Juretschko, senior director of infectious disease diagnostics at Northwell Health Laboratories, the laboratory testing division of Northwell Health, one of New York’s largest hospital systems.

The sums of money up for grabs are vast. Antibody tests can retail for between $25 to more than $100. It is too early to know how many Americans will seek testing and how often. But – conservatively – if tens of millions get tested just once, that translates into a multi-billion-dollar market.

Under the FDA’s new rules, a vendor must only notify the FDA it is selling a test, affirm the product is valid and label it as unapproved. On its website as of April 29, the FDA listed 164 tests that it had been informed would be offered on the market, more than half of them manufactured in China.

The agency has said it is working with the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to validate tests, including tests already on the market. It is unclear how many antibody test kits have been distributed for sale in the United States.

In a statement to Reuters, the FDA said the aim of its policy was to provide laboratories and healthcare providers early access to the tests. But the agency said that it would adjust the approach as needed.

“Every step we have taken as part of our approach to COVID-19 testing has been a careful balancing of risks and benefits in order to meet the urgent public health needs as we combat this new pathogen,” said Anand Shah, deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs, in the statement.

In a separate statement, FDA spokeswoman Sarah Peddicord said some test developers had falsely claimed that their tests were FDA approved, that they could diagnose COVID-19 – the disease caused by the coronavirus – or that they were appropriate for home use.

“When we become aware of these issues, we have and will continue to take appropriate action,” she said, including rejecting tests at the U.S. border.

Antibody tests are different from the nasal-swab diagnostic tests that show an active infection. They are blood tests intended to determine who at some point has been infected by the virus and now could be immune. Antibodies, disease-fighting proteins formed in the days and weeks after infection, may protect a person from re-infection, at least for a time, although it has not been proved whether that holds true for the coronavirus.

Propelling demand for the blood tests is a foundering economy, a sharply rising rate of unemployment and a stir-crazy public anxious to return to their former lives.

“Think about it, testing is an emotional thing,” said Meg Wyatt, senior director of diagnostics for Premier Inc, a leading buyer of equipment for hospitals and nursing homes. “It’s this one single thing that can tell me, am I ok, is my family ok, when can I visit my older parents again? It is a good hook” for sellers.


The entry of unqualified or unscrupulous manufacturers and brokers into the antibody testing business poses risks. Perhaps the greatest one is that they’ll sell a test that indicates immunity where there is none – known as a “false positive.” That could lead people to return to the community while unwittingly posing a risk to themselves and others, infectious disease experts say.

A team of scientists in California and Massachusetts recently evaluated 14 blood antibody tests now on the market and found significant variation in their performance.

The tests were generally effective at detecting antibodies three weeks after an infection but much less so for more recent cases, said Patrick Hsu, an assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who was involved in the research.

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, whose House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy is investigating the regulation of antibody testing, sent letters this week to the FDA and four of the companies cited in the study. He expressed concern about lax regulation of the testing and has called for the FDA to remove tests that don’t meet the agency’s usual standards from the market.

Antibody tests are easy to administer, sometimes requiring only a finger prick to derive a blood sample. Some samples are analyzed in laboratories; other test results are readable on a device, like a pregnancy test, within minutes.

But “if you want good quality, (the tests) are not easy to make,” said Alberto Gutierrez, who led the FDA’s office overseeing diagnostic testing from 2009 to 2017. “They do require a fair amount of expertise.”

Some companies that have notified the FDA of their intent to sell kits without securing approval have separately applied for “emergency use authorization (EUA),” a temporary stamp of approval that requires some review but far less than is typical for a medical device.

Nine tests had been approved for emergency use as of Thursday, including those made by Ortho Clinical Diagnostics, an established testing company owned by private-equity firm Carlyle Group Inc.

The company said it made every effort, as did the FDA, to ensure the tests were reliable and accurate.

Chockalingam “Palani” Palaniappan, Ortho’s chief innovation officer, said the EUA approval process took about a week, but nonetheless was based on a substantial amount of data, including validation of about 400 test samples.


Without a rigorous FDA approval process or enough trusted suppliers, hospitals and others in need of antibody tests say they are left to weed out the good products from the bad.

“All they want to talk about is price and quantity,” Wyatt of Premier said of testing companies whose claims strike her as dubious. Those pitches lack the usual scientific documentation and generally are not from established distributors, she added. The offers often are full of misspellings or appeals to emotion such as, “In order to help America,” she said.

“It’s just been extremely distracting for our member health systems,” she said. “They’re under such pressure to maximize testing capacity.”

Reuters found a number of aspiring antibody test distributors that have made questionable or false claims.

In one case, a distributor called BodySphere claimed in a Business Wire release that it had access to a test that had already been approved for emergency use as a “two-minute” coronavirus “diagnostic” test. BodySphere told Reuters its supplier was Safecare Biotech Co Ltd, based in Hangzhou, China.

Safecare – a client of the Maryland consultant, Shia – told Reuters it had no distribution deal with Bodysphere and that its test takes 10 to 15 minutes, not two, to deliver results. Moreover, Safecare has not received an EUA for its antibody test. And contrary to BodySphere’s release, the Safecare test is not diagnostic.

After being contacted by Reuters, BodySphere retracted its claim of receiving an EUA from U.S. health regulators. The company said it mistakenly had believed that the product was authorized.

Another vendor, David Melman, of Tel Aviv, recently sent Reuters an email and press release promoting an “accurate, fast, affordable, easy-to-use” antibody test “designed for everyone at home, providing results within a few minutes.”

Melman, who identifies himself on LinkedIn as a sales representative for an electronics firm, has taken on a new title: chief executive of a company called COVI-Labs. He claimed in his pitch that his company’s test had received “pre-EUA approval” for the home test – impossible because the FDA does not allow this type of test.

In response to questions from Reuters, Melman said he intends to perform “research and evaluation” on the kit before distributing it and that he would sell the kit for home use in the United States only if it received an EUA from the FDA.


A fight between two would-be distributors – both of whom had previous run-ins with the law – illustrates the race to cash in on the new testing marketplace.

Edward Joseph Eyring, a 52-year-old former colorectal surgeon in Utah, set up a company and a website in March offering antibody test kits under the name CoronaCide. He notified the FDA of his intent to sell and began talking with potential partners. These included businessman George Todt, who was working as a consultant for a California startup called Wellness Matrix, a publicly traded company.

Todt proceeded to market CoronaCide kits on his own: “Home test kits now! Approved by FDA,” he tweeted on March 19. After National Public Radio reported the claim, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) suspended trading in Wellness’ stock.

On April 8, Eyring filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Todt and Wellness pitched CoronaCide kits without his permission and knowing they weren’t approved for home use. The trademark suit says those actions damaged CoronaCide – a company that Eyring’s lawyer, Anton Hopen, told Reuters was intended to help customers “better cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Todt could not be reached for comment. A lawyer for Wellness, William Dailey, said in a statement to Reuters that the company did nothing wrong and wasn’t involved in Todt’s actions.

Eyring and Todt each have separate histories of defrauding investors.

Todt was sued by the SEC in 2005 for two stock manipulation schemes. In a judgment, he was fined $130,000 and ordered to pay $1.2 million in restitution.

Eyring allowed his medical license to lapse after he stipulated to making clinical errors and violating accepted professional and ethical standards in 2010 and did not complete the terms of his settlement, Utah state records show.

In 2017, he pleaded guilty to “a pattern of unlawful activity” to resolve charges in Utah that he lured investors into a fraudulent African gold trading venture. In a plea agreement, he said he would pay $473,039 in restitution. He was placed on probation, which ended last month – two weeks before he formed CoronaCide.

He will “take advantage of anybody and everybody he can,” said Carolann Fredericks, a nurse in Poughkeepsie, New York, now helping to care for critically ill coronavirus patients. A former friend of Eyring, Fredericks gave Eyring $200,000 for the gold deal, according to an affidavit in the case.

In written responses to Reuters, attorney Hopen said Eyring regrets that he and his investors lost money and has done his best to repay his debts.


Though virtually unrestricted by the FDA, many antibody test distributors in the United States have run into obstacles posed by China’s export policy.

After European countries criticized the quality of China’s coronavirus tests, China adopted a new policy on April 1 that holds up exports of tests until the products have a certificate from the country’s regulator, the National Medical Products Administration.

Thus far, China has only certified about a dozen of the 90 China-made antibody tests on the FDA list of prospective sellers, leaving many U.S. distributors without kits to sell.

This past weekend, however, China’s commerce ministry said it would loosen those restrictions. It would allow domestic manufacturers to export test kits, provided an authorized trade association verifies that the tests are approved for use in the importing countries.

It was not immediately clear how the move would affect exports to the United States, since FDA approval is not required for antibody tests.

Some medical experts and policy makers say that as the market expands and the stakes grow higher for the tests, the U.S. regulator needs to take on a more assertive role.

Historically, “the FDA has been there as a bulwark for accuracy and reliability,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “If they give up that role, that opens the door to all kinds of mishaps.”

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