U.S. officials anticipate being able to conduct tens of millions of tests starting next month to determine how many Americans have been infected with coronavirus without knowing it, a step that experts say is crucial to reopening the economy.
“If things work out the way we believe they will, we will have millions on the market by May in a sophisticated way, in a prospective way that we get the surveillance we need,” Adm. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services said Monday at a White House coronavirus task force briefing.
“We can test people to see if they’ve been exposed, are immune, and can go back to work.”
Giroir said that the Food and Drug Administration and National Institute of Health are working together to validate the tests and distribute them widely across the U.S. He said officials are taking precaution to make sure the tests work in light of reports that the United Kingdom received 3.5 million faulty testsfrom China.
“This allows for surveillance screening…to understand if 1%, 5%, 20% of Americans have been infected,” said Giroir, “but it also allows us to have very widespread tens and tens of millions of people screened with a finger prick on the spot.”
“I’m very excited about it,” he added.
Health experts have been pushing for ramped up serology testing as a way to figure out just how widely coronavirus has already spread.
Scientists are still uncertain what proportion of the population has unwittingly been infected with coronavirus. Research from Italy found that 14% of residents in the town of Robbio tested positive for coronavirus.
Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert widely credited with predicting the current pandemic, said in an interview on Monday that he would not be surprised if as many as 20% of New York City residents have already been infected.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under President Trump, has argued that widespread antibody testing has to be part of the coronavirus strategy in order to return to normalcy.
“This is essential for tailoring interventions to stop local spread,” Gottlieb wrote of the screening in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on March 29.
“If you know that a large percentage of people have been exposed and developed some immunity, it may allow for less-restrictive measures.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state is the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., has said he wants to ramp up antibody testing as the state slowly relaxes social distancing measures.
“People who are recovered, you test them, you test the antibodies, you find out that they resolved themselves of the virus,” Cuomo said in a press conference last month.
“Once they’re resolved they can go back to work.”
“Ramp up the economy with those individuals. So you’re refining your public health strategy, and at the same time you’re restarting your economy. Those two can be consistent if you do it intelligently.”
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Image: A member of medical staff takes coronavirus test samples during drive-thru coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing, on a converted ice rink, in Alkmaar, Netherlands April 8, 2020. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw