Cheap Mass Testing Is Vital for Pandemic Victory

Cheap Mass Testing Is Vital for Pandemic Victory

Switching from expensive, slow PCR tests to self-administered antigen tests could work wonders.

The development of COVID-19 vaccines in less than a year is an extraordinary achievement. But while trials suggest vaccines are highly effective in preventing sickness and death, they are unlikely to make us virus-proof. We don’t know yet whether they will prevent spread of the virus—the key to achieving herd immunity. The scale of the project, limited manufacturing capacity, and constraints of intellectual property issues mean it will be months before there is mass deployment of coronavirus vaccines in most countries, let alone protective coverage at the population level. In the meantime, the pandemic is getting worse.

While a high-tech approach has yielded success for vaccines, it has largely failed elsewhere. Despite billions invested in therapeutics, we lack effective drug treatment—let alone a single reliable cure. And despite the hype, there is no evidence that contact-tracing apps have moved the needle even in countries that kept infection rates very low through other means. In others, such as the UK, they have been an expensive fiasco. Effective testing is central to outbreak control, but PCR (polymerase chain reaction), the gold standard for testing, has failed in the first task of disease control—identifying and isolating the contagious. The world needs a lower-tech solution: rapid, cheap, and effective testing.

The human cost of the current approach is enormous. The United States is seeing record numbers of hospitalizations and deaths. Across the Europe Union, largely successful in slowing the first wave of COVID-19, many countries have been back in lockdown for at least two months. Even outlier Sweden introduced tighter restrictions. In East Asia, a resurgent winter virus threatens the hard-fought successes in Japan, South Korea, and others.