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AUGUSTA, Maine — The federal government bungled its initial response to the coronavirus so much that it motivated The Jackson Laboratory to develop its own testing abilities quicker, its president told Maine economic officials on Monday.
Edison Liu told the Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission that he was “appalled” by the government’s assertions that it was testing enough people during the early stages of the pandemic, referring specifically to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I thought that was, excuse the language, complete bullshit, because you just never have enough testing in this framework,” Liu said.
President Donald Trump’s administration has been widely criticized for reacting slowly to the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, Trump has falsely maintained that anyone who wants a test can get one. The federal CDC distributed a small number of kits across the country in February without taking into consideration where the virus was spreading.
Testing has ramped up since then. The U.S. is now testing roughly 20 times for every confirmed case, according to Our World In Data. That falls within general World Health Organization benchmarks for sufficient testing, but other industrialized nations are testing hundreds of times for each case while New Zealand and Australia are in the thousands.
Liu, who headed the Genome Institute of Singapore and the Human Genome Organization before moving to the lab with facilities in Bar Harbor and Ellsworth, said the federal response spurred him to focus the nonprofit lab’s resources on testing, in part to protect his 2,400 employees.
He argued that Maine will need to do additional work to identify and protect vulnerable populations from the virus if it wants to reopen its economy successfully. But he also said a return to normal is further away than people might realize.
“There is no point in going back to the old normal — the idea that we’re going to go back to packed beaches, packed theaters — it just isn’t going to exist until we get a vaccine,” he said.
Though Jackson Lab announced in April that it was working with certain Maine hospitals to augment testing capacities, its efforts have mostly focused on Connecticut, where its satellite campus has been designated as an authorized testing site. In Maine, the lab began breeding mice specifically for a virus vaccine in early March.
The commission is meeting twice this week to hear from economic and state officials to get a sense of how hard the pandemic will hit the state’s economy and revenues. It plans to revise its November forecast by July 1.