Fighting Coronavirus by Breaking the Chains of Needless Regulation

The coronavirus pandemic is having a major effect on the operation of the U.S. government:

  • It is revealing where the bureaucrats’ methods of business-as-usual obstruct the vital interests of regular Americans.
  • The increased visibility allows the Trump administration to obliterate the regulations that provide little to no value for ordinary Americans.

Eliminating needless regulations unleashes the power of the private sector to address the problems from the coronavirus pandemic. A positive side effect is the reduction of the power wielded by the faceless bureaucrats who established these poorly considered regulations.

The many problems with coronavirus testing are a continuing source of new lessons about the degree of dysfunction in the federal bureaucracy.

Did you know, for example, that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was forcing the Centers for Disease Control to double test coronavirus samples? Propublica’s Lydia DePillis and Caroline Chen report on a directive that was meant to speed the government’s pandemic response, but slowed it instead:

The directive, issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, requires that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a sister agency, retest every positive coronavirus test run by a public health lab to confirm its accuracy. The result, experts say, is wasting limited resources at a time when thousands of Americans are waiting in line to get tested for COVID-19.

The duplicative effort is the latest obstacle that is slowing the federal response to COVID-19, which has infected more than 1,300 people and resulted in 38 deaths in the United States.

The Propublica article was published late in the afternoon on March 12, when the coronavirus case numbers were still very low compared to how they have since grown. The Trump administration responded by forcing the FDA to revise its directive, eliminating the needless duplication in testing as of March 15.

Another lesson about how the removal of federal regulatory barriers can unchain the private sector can be learned from a March 19 press release issued by Abbott Labs:

Abbott Laboratories, of Abbott Park, Ill., is the latest company to receive emergency use authorization (EUA) from the U.S. FDA for a test to detect SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. The company said it is shipping 150,000 Realtime SARS-CoV-2 tests immediately to existing customers in the U.S., with plans to produce 1 million tests a week by the end of the month.

The announcement follows EUAs for SARS-CoV-2 tests developed by the CDC, Roche Holdings AG, the New York State Department of Health, Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., Hologic Inc., Laboratory Corp. of America, Quidel Corp. and Quest Diagnostics Inc. Other companies have submitted COVID-19 tests to the FDA, including Becton Dickinson & Co. and Genmark Diagnostics Inc., and still are working to make testing available.

March 19 might seem very late for such an announcement, considering how long the coronavirus has been spreading. But what’s most notable in the press release is its long list of private labs seeking to develop coronavirus tests, labs that were held back by the FDA until its regulatory grip was involuntarily relaxed. Bloomberg’s Emma court reports:

On Feb. 29, after weeks of criticism from state health officials, the Food and Drug Administration lifted a key regulatory hurdle and let lab companies and hospitals more easily test patients for the virus. The government’s tight initial control over who could do diagnostic work has been called a “failing” by Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Then, on Monday the agency went further, allowing states to clear tests from local labs — a move that will increase the number of tests, but give up part of the FDA’s role.

Just imagine how much better off the country would be if private labs hadn’t been obstructed for weeks by bureaucrats who couldn’t bear to see a loss in their power and control.

Here’s one last example about the power of entrepreneurship in the private sector and the role in regulations in obstructing it. Edgardo Zuniga, the founder of Maryland’s Twin Valley Distillers, which is best known for producing whiskey and rum, gave his employees permission to experiment with producing hand-sanitizer, an alcohol-based product that has come to be in short supply with the spread of the coronavirus.

After some fast-paced experimentation, they settled on a formulation they felt would work and approached the federal government for approval to sell it. Becket Adams of the Washington Examiner described what happened next:

As they messed around with the recipe, they also applied for a license to produce the sanitizer. They were approved almost immediately by the federal government, which, honestly, is a sentence I thought I would never write.

“The federal government said the application typically takes three weeks for approval. We got approval in two days,” the distillery’s general manager, Jonathan Shair, told the ABC affiliate.

What if the bureaucrats at the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau had held fast to a non-emergency regulatory mindset and took weeks to process the license for the distillery to introduce their new product? Obviously, there would be less hand-sanitizer available for people to buy, and what possible good could come from that?

This example of how fast things can happen in the absence of an excessive regulatory burden proves that many regulations simply exist to be in the way, failing to produce any positive outcome. It shouldn’t take an emergency to strip away regulatory barriers to progress that should never have existed in the first place.

Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and the creator of the Government Cost Calculator at MyGovCost.org.
Posts by Craig Eyermann | Full Biography and Publications
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