Don’t Just Demand More Testing, Study What More Testing Requires

A staff member takes a sample at a COVID-19 testing centre in Glasgow, Scotland, April 29, 2020. (Andrew Milligan/Reuters)

At this point, the easiest and least useful contribution to the discussion about reopening society is to pound the table and bellow, “We need more testing!” Yeah, no kidding. As laid out yesterday, not even the United States of America can snap its fingers and start producing 5 million coronavirus tests a day. Demanding something happen does not make it happen; logistical facts don’t care about your feelings.

The FDA has granted 50 companies “emergency use authorizations” to produce tests, but these production lines take time to set up. Manufacturers need supplies. Once those tests are manufactured, they need to be distributed, conducted, and in some cases, processed at a separate facility.

Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that we’re not yet conducting and processing the most tests that we can with our existing capacity:

“We have university laboratories around this country that have the ability to run 1,000 or 3,000 tests per day, yet many of them are nowhere near capacity,” said Michael Pellini, managing partner of venture fund Section 32 and a contributor to the Rockefeller Foundation’s national Covid-19 testing action plan. “We need to make sure they’re utilized.”

With the full potential of U.S. hospital, commercial and academic labs unlocked, testing could scale from roughly 1.5 million to 3 million weekly tests within eight weeks, says Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The big three existing test manufacturers — Thermo Fisher Scientific, Quest Diagnostics, and LabCorp — are currently producing about 800,000 tests a day. By the end of May, it could be up to 1.6 million per day, perhaps higher.

A Harvard study released April 20 concluded, “We need to deliver 5 million tests per day by early June to deliver a safe social reopening. This number will need to increase over time (ideally by late July) to 20 million a day to fully remobilize the economy.” That is extremely unlikely to happen. Assistant Secretary of Health Brett Giroir bluntly told Time earlier this week, “There is absolutely no way on Earth, on this planet or any other planet, that we can do 20 million tests a day, or even five million tests a day.” This is not excuse-making or spin; it is an acknowledgment that the figure is well beyond the plausible expansion of production capacity. You can’t conduct 5 million tests a day for very long, or at all, if you’re not making 5 million tests a day.

The current unused capacity suggests that we can increase testing now, beyond the current 200,000 range. Manufacturers’ projections of rapidly expanded production over the next month suggest we can climb through the six figures and maybe even reach a million tests a day as summer arrives. Maybe if everything goes well, and the newer, smaller test manufacturers can produce a lot quickly, we will hit 2 million daily.

If your argument is that we should only reopen society when we have enough tests, you’re making an argument on par with contending we should only reopen society when we have a vaccine.

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