Opinion

# EPSTEIN: It’s Time For Some Clear Thinking About The Virus

REUTERS/Craig Lassig/File Photo

Robert Epstein Senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology
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The various half measures we’re using to tackle the new coronavirus – social distancing (around strangers, anyway), wearing masks (maybe, depending on today’s messaging), staying home (except when we have to go, well, just about anywhere), limiting public gatherings (except big beach parties, it seems), and washing our hands a lot – aren’t adding up very well.

In fact, one could argue they’re having no effect at all.

The problem with half measures is that they’re not necessarily additive.  In other words, whereas two half cups make a full cup, two half measures don’t always make a full measure.

Although swift and draconian measures taken by the Chinese government seem to have gotten China’s epidemic under control – if we can believe their numbers, of course – worldwide, the number of deaths due to Covid-19 is still doubling every seven days.

In the United States, the number of deaths is currently doubling every four days or so.  Given that 909 people died here of Covid-19 on April 1st, if that fast doubling time is maintained, the coronavirus will kill 864,783 Americans by the end of the month.

Our government is assuming a slower doubling time: If it proves to be nine days, we end up with only 103,000 deaths. If it’s six days, we end up with 230,000. The White House, which keeps revising its numbers upwards, recently gave us a range of 100,000 to 240,000.  Now you know where such numbers come from.

If those numbers seem unreasonably large to you, just think how doubling works.  On April 1st, if someone gives you a dollar and promises to give you \$2 on the 2nd, \$4 on the 3rd, \$8 on the 4th, and so on, pray that this isn’t an April Fool’s joke, because if he or she honors the promise, by April 20th, you’ll be a millionaire, and by the 30th, you’ll be a billionaire: You will have received a total of \$1,073,741,823.

Doubling is troubling, and it deserves a full measure of our ingenuity and resources, not half measures. It means we need to think out of the box, and to think big.

For example, what if, today, President Trump asks or orders our biotech industry to develop a cheap, disposable coronavirus test that people can self-administer, just like those disposable pregnancy tests you see at the dollar stores? A billion dollar incentive would assure that the new device is ready for FDA scrutiny in three or four days (one of my contacts in biotech tells me that such a test has already been developed).

Then the president asks or orders our manufacturers to produce 350 million of these little devices – perhaps with help from Chinese factories. That order could be fulfilled in a few weeks, with millions of the devices distributed to different regions of the US as quickly as they are produced.

As they reach us, we all self-test, and those of us who are carriers self-isolate, whether we’re symptomatic or not.  When the carriers are separated from the non-carriers, transmission of the virus stops cold, and the millions of non-carriers among us can immediately return to work or school.

In other words, by testing everyone, we not only save countless lives, we also save the economy.

What about homeless people who have nowhere to self-isolate? What about the morons who test positive but decide to mingle with the rest of us anyway?  What about the blockheads who refuse to self-test because they don’t like the government telling them what to do?

My answer to all such questions is: It’s much easier to solve small problems and manage small groups than to try to manage monstrously large problems in an entire population.

One or two million of us are probably carrying the virus at the moment, and the vast majority of those people will self-isolate quickly and voluntarily (wouldn’t you?). Carrots and sticks will increase compliance among the troublesome few: cash for staying home for a few weeks, penalties for going out.

With millions of cheap self-test devices floating around, we’ll be able to identify cheaters quickly – sometimes in seconds. Until the bifurcation is complete, baskets-full of the test devices can be placed at the entrances to schools, bars, restaurants, and stadiums (like those containers filled with the plastic glasses you need to watch 3-D movies), and proprietors can make sure people test negative before they enter.

With virtually all the carriers isolated, in a few weeks’ time, the virus will be dead, either because our immune systems killed it, or, in perhaps 1 percent of cases, because the virus killed its hosts.

It’s not everyone who needs to be quarantined, and it’s not the elderly who need to be quarantined, it’s the carriers.  For goodness sake, it’s the carriers, not the whole population!

As people in the Italian town of Vò found out a few weeks ago, when everyone is tested and carriers are isolated, transmission stops.  When the virus started to spread in Spain, an entire town – Zahara – cut itself off from the rest of the country; as a result, Zahara has not had a single case of Covid-19. The residents of Telluride, Colorado are in the process of testing everyone; you know what comes next.

And Universal Testing is now underway in Iceland. When it’s done, so is the virus – and that’s without a vaccine or cure, which we might not see for years. Bonus: With Universal Testing underway to identify carriers of the active virus, there’s no need to test for antibodies. Only virus carriers are a threat to the population at large.

As for cost, the \$6.5 billion or so this program might cost is a drop in the bucket compared to the costs we are incurring daily by crushing the worldwide economy.

President Trump has the power to take the lead on Universal Testing, not just for the U.S. but for the entire world. If he says, “make it so,” this might well be his legacy.