WELLNESS - Walmart and Kroger are raising prices for one of the more widely used at-home coronavirus tests, leading critics to accuse the U.S. retailers of exploiting an Omicron-fueled surge in demand for the kits to pad their bottom lines.
The companies said Tuesday that they are moving to hike prices for Abbott's BinaxNOW tests following the expiration of a September deal with the White House under which they sold the kits at cost—$14. Abbott is the firm that, in mid-2021, instructed a factory assembling its tests to destroy millions of the products, citing then-dwindling sales.
"Shame on Walmart and Kroger for price gouging these essential tests during the height of the worst pandemic surge."
Walmart will now offer the highly sought-after kits—which include two rapid Covid-19 tests—for $19.98 per box and Kroger will sell them for $23.99.
"This is pandemic profiteering, plain and simple," the Groundwork Collaborative, a progressive policy organization, said late Tuesday. "Shame on Walmart and Kroger for price gouging these essential tests during the height of the worst pandemic surge."
Critics also argued that the price hikes reflect the Biden administration's failure to use its authority to ensure the universal availability of at-home coronavirus tests, which have been expensive and often difficult to obtain in the U.S. over the course of the pandemic. In October, as Vanity Fair reported last month, the Biden White House rejected a plan that would have significantly ramped up test supply in time for the holidays.
Jeff Hauser, founder and director of the Revolving Door Project, demanded the firing of White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients, "whose failure to utilize the Defense Production Act for tests or [personal protective equipment] demonstrates a greater fealty to private profit than the public interest."
Attorney and healthcare advocate Matthew Cortland similarly warned that "the failure of the Biden administration to fully leverage the Defense Production Act and related legal authorities is costing American lives."
During a media briefing on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declined to say whether the administration is engaging with Walmart or Kroger in an effort to bring the prices for the BinaxNOW test back down.
"I can't give you an update on any conversations," Psaki said in response to a reporter's question about the price hikes. "I can tell you that our objective is, of course, to increase and scale up access to free tests."
To that end, Psaki said the White House is in the process of finalizing contracts for 500 million rapid Covid-19 tests that it intends to begin distributing to people who request them in the coming weeks—an idea Psaki mocked just a month earlier.
"When we have those deliveries in hand, we will put the website up, make it available so that people can order tests at that point in time," Psaki told the press on Tuesday.
Public health experts and progressive lawmakers have argued that the administration's plan—formally announced last month—is a welcome start but falls far short of what's needed in the face of the ongoing Omicron wave, which has helped push U.S. cases to record levels.
On Monday, the country officially tallied a million new coronavirus infections, a global record. By late Tuesday, nearly 860,000 additional new cases had been reported.
With infections mounting and hospitalizations also trending upward, campaigners are pressuring the Biden administration to respond by mailing an "ample and continuous supply" of free Covid-19 tests and high-quality masks to every household in the U.S. twice a month through at least May 2022.
"There are major steps we could be taking right now to ensure better access for all to both Covid-19 vaccines and tests," Olivia Alperstein, media manager at the Institute for Policy Studies, tweeted Tuesday after Walmart and Kroger announced the price hikes. "When we aren't proactive, this is what happens. Companies will not simply decide to take less of a profit during a health crisis unless we make them."
At present, the Wall Street Journal noted Tuesday, "the cost and availability of tests [vary] widely" in the U.S., which has long lagged behind other wealthy nations in establishing robust testing infrastructure and making at-home kits easily accessible.
"BinaxNOW tests are hard to find online for $24 but can be purchased for twice the price," the Journal reported. "At-home PCR tests are more readily available but generally cost close to $100 for a single test. Other rapid tests approved by the FDA for home use include the Ellume Covid-19 Home Test and the QuickVue test made by Quidel."
Paul Romer, a Nobel laureate and an economics professor at New York University, told Bloomberg in a recent interview that "the way to assess the degree to which we've failed in the U.S. is, 'How much time and money would someone have to spend to get a test right now?'"
"And it's just crazy compared to the rest of the world," said Romer, "and crazy compared to what it could be."
(Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams where this story was first published.)