This tweak in testing could curb the spread of COVID-19

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Cheap, easily accessible, and easy-to-use COVID-19 tests could significantly curb the spread of the coronavirus, but the federal red tape is thick.

That’s according to Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina, who’s been pushing for better public health planning. He said the primary COVID-19 test, a PCR nasal swab, is great at what it’s designed for: diagnosing illnesses.

But by their nature, PCR tests are not so great at identifying people when they’re infectious — in many cases, he said, it doesn’t catch them until after they’re contagious.

It can take a day to get tested and then another day or two to get results, and because PCR tests are so sensitive, Mina said they can pick up the virus in someone who’s no longer contagious.

“That means that the average person who’s positive and asymptomatic and you don’t know anything about their exposure history, they will have already passed their infectious stage,” he explained.

He calls that case a “late positive” rather than a false positive, meaning quarantining that person for two weeks would accomplish nothing.

“What’s the test that will allow me to test the most people most frequently, if my goal is to use testing as a way to remove people who are infectious from the population?” Mina asked. “And that’s where these rapid antigen tests really start to shine.”

More rapid tests are being released, and the FDA is easing a bit as it talks about how to move forward with more public health-focused testing.

For the rapid at-home tests to be most effective, Mina said the federal government should pick up the tab.

“We all want to be safe when we walk around,” he said. “By giving our neighbors tests, we become safer. This should not become a class thing. This should not become anything other than, how do we make the public safe?”

Mina said better testing would let a lot more businesses re-open. And even if the rapid tests come with a $100-billion price tag, that would be pennies compared to the federal stimulus money that’s already been paid because of COVID-19.

With a strong federal buy-in, Mina predicts a widespread testing program could be up and running within a few months.