Last March former President Donald Trump said “anybody that wants a test can get a test” for Covid-19. That wasn’t true then, and in some parts of the country, finding a test appointment is about as easy to get as Super Bowl tickets.
Regular and affordable testing, if done right, could not only diagnose people who feel sick, it could stop the spread of the pandemic by letting people know if they are contagious and need to stay home, even if they don’t feel sick.
Scientists have been pushing for this kind of testing – accessible, affordable and ideally, at home – since the start of the pandemic, but it hasn’t happened yet.
There are at-home collection kits to make it easy for people to provide a sample, but the sample must still be sent to a lab, and results can take days. One over-the-counter, quick, at-home test has been authorized for use in the United States, but it’s not available yet.
“Almost all the infections happen from people who don’t know that they’re positive, and so what you need is a widespread testing program that helps people identify when they are infectious so they can stop infecting other people,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor and dean at the School of Public Health at Brown University who wants more widespread testing. “We never really quite built that out.”
Imagine being able to test yourself regularly before going to school or work, or before going to visit your elderly mom.
Jha said it works for his students and colleagues at Brown University. People there get tested twice a week. While there have been large outbreaks in Providence, where Brown is located, there have been almost no outbreaks on campus, even with a third of students living off campus.
“It was a great reminder that if you take a population of people, and do regular testing twice a week, that you can actually keep outbreaks under control,” Jha said.
“If we could get some of these tests a bit more scaled up, we could use testing alone as a way to control the pandemic,” Jha said.
So why hasn’t it taken off?
Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the country hasn’t scaled up the tests yet for a few reasons. One, the Trump administration “didn’t want to see positive test results.” While that’s no longer a problem, he thinks, the “regulated environment” in the US would also need to change.
“We have the FDA that is kind of all controlling in some ways of what tests are available,” Mina said. “The FDA, unfortunately, only has a single lens through which to look at a coronavirus test. Their only mandate, when it comes to testing, is to evaluate medical diagnostic tests.”