As Georgia, Tennessee and some other states take steps towards reopening their economies, the Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute warned that — without a dramatic increase in testing — the United States is nowhere near ready to control the spread of coronavirus.
Dr. Ashish Jha told Jim Braude on WGBH News’ Greater Boston Tuesday the country would need to conduct a minimum of 500,000 tests a day to be able to get control over the virus. That’s more than three times the current level.
“I don’t know any scientist who I have met, who I’ve talked to, who believes the 150,000 a day we’re doing right now is nearly enough,” he said.
And any state that reopens beforehand, Jha said, can expect to see another spike in coronavirus cases.
“If you see a decline in your cases and you open … the simple biology of the virus is that the number of cases will start rising,” he said. “And if you don’t have large-scale testing, tracing and isolation, you can’t control the virus, the virus is going to grow exponentially, and at some point, weeks down the road, you’re going to have a big explosion in cases and then you’re gonna have to shut down again.”
But while most experts agree that widespread testing is key to getting control of the outbreak, Jha said the federal government’s efforts to institute nationwide coronavirus testing have been “a fiasco.”
“We have been not only under where we need to be, but falling behind every day,” he said. “Right now, we have governors competing with each other, going after resources in a way that isn’t coordinated, because they don’t have any choice. And if we had federal coordination, it would make a big difference.”
Though President Donald Trump has said testing is a matter for the states, Jha argued there are some things only the federal government can do.
“You can’t have individual states going out there and telling manufacturers to make more swabs or get more reagents; you really need the federal government deeply engaged on this,” he explained. “You know, some states can’t do enough testing because they don’t have enough swabs.
“I can’t believe we’ve got an economy shut down because we don’t have enough swabs,” he added.
Jha said that a shortage of tests isn’t the only problem — quality is an issue, too. He pointed to a recent decision by the Food and Drug Administration to waive vetting requirements for coronavirus antibody tests, which determine whether a person has ever been exposed to the virus and could potentially be immune.
“Anybody and their uncle can create an antibody test and easily get F.D.A. approval,” he said. “We now are flooded with anti-body tests, dozens and dozens and dozens of them. Some of them are quite good and some of them are terrible.”
And when antibody tests are unreliable, there can be serious consequences.
“Here’s the most dangerous part: you’re gonna tell people that they have anti-bodies and they may be immune when they aren’t,” he said. “So, people are going to act like they’re immune to COVID when they’re not and they’re going to get into trouble and they’re going to die.”
Jha said this is another issue only the White House can solve.
“What we need is a national plan to improve the availability of testing and the quality of testing,” he said. “This is only gonna happen with federal leadership. I don’t think 50 states can all figure this out on their own.”