Promising news about potential coronavirus vaccines from biopharmaceutical companies including AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna has been in the news over the last few weeks, but it will be a while before any vaccine is available for most Americans. GBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Harvard University Assistant Professor of epidemiology Dr. Michael Mina about what the country can do in the meantime in order to slow the spread of the virus. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: You write in your column, "if 1,000 Americans were dying each day in a war, we would act swiftly and decisively... This should not be about politics — it's about human beings, and we should be acting like it." You say it's time for a national testing plan.
Dr. Michael Mina: That's absolutely right, I would say that one of the defining features, in my opinion, of this pandemic, at least in the United States, has been a complete failure and absence of any sort of strategy to try to tackle this virus. We have yet to develop a plan even for testing, and testing has been on the front page of newspapers across the country since March. And yet we never figured out — and even attempted to figure out — how to use testing strategically across this country. If we do, we could make much better use of the tests that we do have and we would have the clarity of thought to figure out what are the tests that we actually need.
Mathieu: I can't imagine what you think when you see these images of people waiting in lines [for] two [to] four hours to try to get a test. But in this case, you're specifically pointing to rapid at home antibody tests, right? How would they work?
Mina shows Mathieu how to use the rapid at-home COVID test:
Mathieu: How much room for error is there when we're all kind of home cooks at this point? You make the point that it's in the front of the nose, so it's not that deep nasal swab that some of us might have had in testing already.
Mina: That's been a big controversy around these rapid tests: are they accurate enough? And they are almost as sensitive as the gold standard laboratory PCR test that we see all the people waiting in lines for [and] that we see people waiting three, four or five days to get the results back for. And when people are contagious and likely to spread the virus to other people, these tests will almost always catch them.
Mathieu: The next question would be supply here, right? With the exception of Abbott Labs, and maybe you can point out a couple of others, we're talking about some small companies that are in this space. Are there enough tests or could we have enough tests by Christmas?
Mina: If we could have 10 to 20 million of these tests every single day across all of America, that would be enough to stop the outbreaks across the United States. It doesn't take a lot. 10 million might sound like a lot to the average person, but actually it's really not a huge number of the tests. The US government, if it wanted to act in a coordinated and thoughtful fashion about what are the best strategies to fight this virus, could produce the manufacturing capacity for what I estimate to be less than .01 percent of the cost that this virus is actually taking across our country in terms of a dollar sign.
Mathieu: Understood. Does a rapid national testing program like this actually do more to reopen the economy than an early vaccine?
Mina: If we can get these up to 50 percent of households and ask 50 percent of people in this country to use a test twice a week — they wake up, they brush their teeth on a Monday and a Friday and they take a COVID test — it doesn't take full buy in; you just have to get half of a community. And so we could actually start to see it in weeks the prevalence would half, and then half again and half again. We won't use these to completely eradicate a virus like this. It's extremely difficult to eradicate a virus, but we can use this to open the economy back up, to get the whole prevalence of the virus down and be able to be safer as we move about the world again.
Mathieu: I wonder, doctor, once there is a vaccine, are we still going to need testing? We've heard repeatedly that will still need to wear masks and continue distancing maybe for the next year.
Mina: Absolutely. Testing is not going away just because there's a vaccine. We still have so much to learn about how well [the vaccines] will work. I am very encouraged by the recent results of 90 percent [and] 94 percent efficacy and the phase three trials, but we don't know how well they'll work three months after people get vaccinated, or four or five or six months. We also will see a slow rollout. These vaccines have to go up to billions of people across the world. The US will get a fraction of those. So over the next six months or so, we will start to see them become more available in the US, but they won't be in nearly enough supply to really limit spread until we start to get towards the summer, I imagine.