A 24-year scandal was quietly acknowledged last week. On July 3 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first "rapid home" test for HIV—a test that people can take in the privacy of their own homes to determine whether they have the virus that causes AIDS.
The approval is an unambiguously good thing—or so you would think. The saliva test in question, made by OraSure Technologies and known as OraQuick, costs less than $60 and takes just 20 minutes to self-administer. According to statistics an FDA advisory committee presented at a hearing in May, it holds the potential to prevent the transmission of more than 4,000 new HIV infections in its first year of use alone. That would be about 8 percent of the roughly 50,000 new infections we currently see annually in the United States. (About 1.2 million people in the U.S. are now living with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of whom about 20 percent don't realize they have it. Since the epidemic began in the early 1980s, about 1.1 million people have been diagnosed with AIDS, and more than 619,000 have died from it.)
The scandal is that the approval of a rapid home test for HIV did not occur until last week—about 24 years after the FDA received its first application seeking permission to market one.
Apparently, for years, even decades, only tests of clinical options were allowed to proceed, basically because the government considers Americans to be infants:
There was great concern that the patient receive proper counseling, both before and after the test. The patient needed to appreciate the possibility of false positives, so he wouldn't panic unnecessarily if he got one. He needed to appreciate the danger of false negatives, so he wouldn't become reckless, endangering sexual partners. And he needed to understand the options and support groups available in the event he received a true positive. (On top of all these concerns, many AIDS activists at the time were opposed to almost any form of HIV testing out of fear that results could be used to ostracize and persecute HIV-positive people—though one hopes that public health concerns were paramount to the FDA, rather than political pressure and hysteria.)