At minute 5:50 of the Democratic Presidential Primary Debate on Sunday, March 15 (video and transcript), former vice president Joe Biden made this claim (emphasis added):

[T]he World Health Organization offered [...] the testing kits that they have available and to give it to us now. We refused them. We did not want to buy them. We did not want to get them from them. We wanted to make sure we had our own. I think [Trump] said something like we have the best scientists in America, or something to that effect.

  • Yesterday half a million kits were shipped from the us air base of Aviano (Italy) to Tennessee. Origin of the items, Brescia (Italy), a town bordering the current Italian epicenter of the outbreak (Bergamo). It seems unbelievable but it is. – Alchimista Mar 20 '20 at 8:26
  • Addendum: Lombardy governor said this shipping is perfectly fine as there is no shortage of kits but rather the problem is to apply them on mass. – Alchimista Mar 20 '20 at 9:48

I'm not sure what would be a truly convincing level of evidence for this claim. Also there's the semantic distinction between "not asking" vs "being offered and refusing". But if we gloss over those issues, the topic that Biden has mentioned has been covered in the press before, e.g. by NYT on March 2

Soon after the virus surfaced in China, the C.D.C. got to work on its own test. “Generally, C.D.C. provides these tests for the world,” said Dr. [Thomas] Frieden[-- a former director of the C.D.C.].

But German researchers were devising their own test, which was quickly adopted by the World Health Organization for distribution around the world.

After the C.D.C.’s version turned out to be flawed, the agency continued to pursue it, despite the fact that another diagnostic test was already in wide use.

With F.D.A. approval, the agency could simply have distributed the test used by the W.H.O. instead of creating a new one from scratch, Dr. Mina [an epidemiologist at Harvard University] said. The government could do so even now.

“It’s just a very American approach to say, ‘We’re the U.S., the major U.S. public health lab, and we’re going to not follow the leader,’” Dr. Mina said.

So yeah, the US (or more precisely the CDC) apparently had a NIH syndrome (non-invented-here) in this matter for a certain amount of time, with respect to the foreign-developed tests endorsed by the WHO.

(Am I merely repeating the claim [in an earlier version] rather than proving it though? You decide.)

The New Yorker has recently published (on March 16, more precisely) a more detailed account on the timeline of the competing tests and the complications of US (FDA) regulations with respect to their actual use and even their advertisement (in the US). These EUA regulations affected tests developed in the US too (outside of the CDC.)

As for the delay in scaling up covid-19 testing capacity during those crucial weeks in February, [Keith] Jerome [--the director of University of Washington Virology Lab--] told me that the underlying problem had far less to do with the faulty tests produced by the C.D.C. than it did with a system that could not contemplate, let alone manage, the possibility that the C.D.C. might end up producing faulty tests. The F.D.A.’s exclusive authorization to the C.D.C. to conduct covid-19 tests ended up creating “what you’d think of as an agriculture monoculture. If something went wrong, it was going to shut everything down, and that’s what happened.”

As LShaver points out in a comment below, and as I suspected (in my opening sentence) the "WHO offered but US refused" isn't true:

The Biden campaign referred us to a Politico article that said the WHO shipped coronavirus tests to nearly 60 countries at the end of February, but the U.S. was not among them. That is technically correct, but it suggests that the United States would have been on the list under any circumstances. [...]

"No discussions occurred between WHO and CDC about WHO providing COVID-19 tests to the United States," said WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris. "This is consistent with experience since the United States does not ordinarily rely on WHO for reagents or diagnostic tests because of sufficient domestic capacity."

So "US didn't ask" is what really happened, as I suspected.

  • 4
    If we agree with the 2nd source that "test kit monoculture" is bad (personally, I very much agree with this, for several reasons ranging from evolution of viruses to logistics and politics) then this is a very good reason why the CDC should develop a test - and whether there is a not-invented-here syndrome (which could be there in addition) is completely irrelevant. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 18 '20 at 12:45
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX I agree that the CDC should develop a test in addition to WHO. But the priority is to get working tests out ASAP. By the CDC having exclusive license in the US, we have a sole source problem here. The US should have had both CDC kits (when they were ready) and WHO kits ready in the earliest days, avoiding the issue caused by sole sourcing and allowing at least some testing to be done by those that had received the WHO kits. – cpcodes Mar 18 '20 at 17:42
  • @cpcodes: I'm too far away to know why which test took how long to approve, but: a) the FDA approval procedure now requires more testing of the tests before they can be approved compared to the original approval of the CDC test. This may explain part of the delay with the other tests. The tests are also approved for specific lab equipment only and third the lap using the test must show that it works with them (that's where the failure of the CDC kits was detected). All this takes time, but if you don't take the time you run the risk to use a bad test (like the CDC's or one whose probe doesn't – cbeleites unhappy with SX Mar 18 '20 at 17:47
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX So the FDA's procedures fast-track an unproven test because it comes form the CDC, but forces a test already used safely and effectively on hundreds or thousands worldwide to go through a more stringent process? Seems that NIH played a pretty significant role in the failure. – cpcodes Mar 18 '20 at 18:21
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    The plot thickens with this one. Politifact has an article saying Biden's statement is false, which includes a statement from a WHO spokesperson. But the sources don't indicate that Politifact talked to the WHO, and I can't find a source for that quote anywhere else. – LShaver Mar 20 '20 at 13:30

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