America Is Capable Of Testing Its Way Out Of Lockdowns Right Now, Panel Concludes

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Adam Barnes General Assignment Reporter
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Rapid COVID-19 testing technology currently exists that would allow Americans to nearly instantly know whether they have the virus.

In-home testing, according to a group of experts, is a key to slowing the spread of COVID-19. Personal testing up to this point, they argue, has been largely ineffective given regulatory constraints that make a test’s results “pointless.” In-home testing would allow any person to know quickly whether they had the virus and take the appropriate action to control the spread — and possibly move the U.S. out of lockdowns.

Routine testing, even after a vaccine becomes available, will add further protection, they argue. Routine testing will act as a safe-guard in case the U.S. eventually finds itself facing a new strain of the virus.

Antigen tests, professor of Epidemiology and Immunology at Harvard Michael Mina wrote for Time, are “extremely effective contagiousness tests” that detect when a person is most contagious. A paper strip antigen test, he said, are easy to produce, are cost effective and give the user results in minutes. And they can be done at home. The U.S., Mina wrote, could achieve “vaccine-like herd effects if 50% of the population could test themselves every 4 days.

“Unlike vaccines, which stop onward transmission through immunity, testing can do this by giving people the tools to know, in real-time, that they are contagious and thus stop themselves from unknowingly spreading to others,” Mina wrote.

The cost to mass produce these tests, according to Mina, would require around $10 billion from Congress. Mina explained during a panel discussion Thursday at the Heritage Foundation that the cost of rapid personal testing might sound high, but the money Congress could dole out for the tests would only be a fraction of what the U.S. has already spent.

“For the average person, these numbers sound like a lot. A billion dollars is 1-5,000th of what we’ve spent already on this virus, or what it’s costing us. It’s 1- 1,000th of what they’re about to pass.”

“We keep mopping up the mess when we just need to go turn off the faucet,” Mina continued.

Mina added that the Trump administration took a good step forward when it purchased 150 million tests, but he believes they need to ramp it up to nearly 30 million per day.

The U.S. has a lot of eggs in the “vaccine basket,” Heritage Foundation Domestic Policy Studies Director Marie Fishpaw told the Daily Caller. But she also said there are additional tools the country could utilize while waiting for a vaccine to be available to healthy populations. The current testing system, even for tests that can be performed at home, can take days to produce results, Fishpaw explained. Right now, the Food and Drug Administration requires these tests to be sent to a certified clinic.

“Literally, you could run a test for $5 and get results in 15 minutes, except you’d have to mail it off to get that result. So, it’s requirements like this, which might make sense if it was complicated test to do. But this is not a complicated test to run,” Fishpaw continued.

“A vaccine is a high reward strategy, but it’s also got a lot of risks associated with it, that the testing does not and the testing could be ramped up quite quickly while we continue to work towards a vaccine, Fishpaw said.

One of the major barriers to regulatory and policy decisions, the panelists agreed, is the fact the U.S. is a democracy. Paul Romer, co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, emphasized that “voters don’t like mandates.” He also pointed out a possible fear that if people receive tests they’ll go out and do whatever they want. However, Romer said, people don’t necessarily need to be forced to do the right thing — the focus should be on testing. (RELATED: Inside The Battle Over Pandemic Policy — What Exactly Does The Science Support?)

“If you just let people know, without even forcing any mandates on them, they’ll tend to do the right thing, which is to go isolate and avoid infecting people they care about,” Romer said.

Romer added that tests don’t come with the same inherent risks associated with vaccines, adding that “tests don’t threaten anybody.”

Heritage Foundation Domestic Policy Fellow Doug Badger pointed to the idea that decision makers are locked in to “losing strategies.” These strategies, Badger said, are made worse by the holidays and further intensified by leaders who are seen breaking their own mandates.

“We see political leaders telling us don’t get together with family and friends for the holidays. And then we read stories about governors and mayors and so forth. In fact, violating their own orders. So we’re on sort of a failed policy course on the one side. And on the other side, we’re beginning to tell people well, it’s your fault,” he said.

Mina explained a major benefit of testing is that it is “mutation proof.” A virus, Mina said, “can figure out evolutionarily how to escape the vaccine response.” He argued that “at the very least” the test could serve as a sort of contingency plan, should the country find itself facing a different strain of the virus.

“I’ve never seen a country go to battle without a contingency plan. I’ve never seen anything won without a contingency plan for the most part, you know, at least nothing important,” Mina said.

“These tests must be fast, they must be frequent. And to do both of those, they must be accessible, and that’s why we need them at home. And if you don’t have all three of those, the testing is going to be what we’re doing already, which is, frankly, pointless from a public health perspective.”