Maryland officials continue to provide incomplete information about the much-publicized purchase of coronavirus tests from a South Korean company in April.
Gov. Larry Hogan again touted the deal in an excerpt from his forthcoming political memoir that was published Thursday in The Washington Post. He did a round of national TV interviews to talk about the 500,000 tests bought from the South Korean company, LabGenomics, framing the purchase as a bold decision in the face of lack of help from President Donald Trump.
But the Hogan administration has refused to say exactly how many of those tests have been put into use since the April 20 announcement.
An undisclosed number of tests were used initially for “high-priority clusters and outbreaks” said Mike Ricci, a spokesman for the Republican governor, in response to questions from The Baltimore Sun.
Since then, the state expanded the use of the tests to nursing homes, assisted living facilities and community testing sites, Ricci said. But the state is using them “judiciously” so tests will remain available in the event of a future outbreak, he said.
At first, he said, the tests were sent to private labs, but more recently they have been sent to University of Maryland labs in Baltimore. The state gave the university a $2.5 million grant to fund a project to use robotics to speed up test processing, which was completed in early June.
Ricci said that the state “had the opportunity to upgrade to better, faster tests” from LabGenomics and traded in the original tests to do so.
He did not answer questions about when this upgrade happened or how much it cost taxpayers. WBAL-TV, which first reported the switch on Thursday, reported the move cost a few dollars more per test, but did not offer specifics.
The initial purchase of half a million tests came at a cost of nearly $9.5 million, or about $19 a test.
“In this crisis, as diagnostic technology continues to make advances, we want to stay ahead of the game as best we can,” Ricci said in a statement. “Thanks to our unique partnership with LabGenomics and the South Korean government, we’ve been able to do that.”
Meanwhile, before the LabGenomics tests arrived from halfway around the world, the state did not move forward on a cheaper offer of test kits from a domestic supplier.
Rick Vohrer, a Maryland-based sales consultant, offered tests from a Utah company called Co-Diagnostics that were cheaper than the South Korean tests, according to emails released by the state in response to a public records request. The emails were first reported by The Washington Post.
Vohrer had been in discussions with Jake Whitaker, a deputy director of government affairs for the state Department of Health, the emails show. Vohrer and several associates scheduled a conference call with Whitaker on April 10.
“That’s where it died,” Vohrer said in an interview on Friday. “I never heard anything back after that. So I went on to other stuff.”
The Hogan administration said the offer from Vohrer came well after the deal with LabGenomics was struck on April 2, one week before Vohrer’s first email.
The day after Hogan’s announcement about the South Korean tests, Vohrer wrote to Whitaker to express his surprise at the relative cost of the South Korean tests.
“The test I discussed with you is manufactured domestically, Co-Diagnostics, and is $12.00 for the volume being purchased from Korea,” Vohrer wrote in an email. “Volumes above one million units can get even better pricing, as low as $10. Can we have a discussion?”
He tried again about a week later, citing a news article reporting that the South Korean tests weren’t in use yet.
“If the above article is accurate, can we discuss the kits we talked about 2+ weeks ago and can be on hand within 2-3 days max and at a price level less than what I heard MD paid S. Korea?” he wrote. “Demand seems to be high.”
Vohrer said he’s a supporter of Hogan but was nonetheless disappointed that he didn’t get more traction in selling tests to the state.
“‘Frustrated' would be a good term,” he said.
Co-Diagnostics, a molecular diagnostics company based in Salt Lake City, produces a test called Logix Smart COVID-19. Company officials did not respond to a request for comment from The Baltimore Sun, but CEO Dwight Egan told The Washington Post that the company was “very anxious and capable” of fulfilling a larger order for Maryland.