Until Vaccine Is Available, Rapid Testing Is Best Bet in Battle Against COVID-19

By Margaret Jackson Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Until a vaccine is approved to combat COVID-19, widespread rapid medical diagnostic testing is the key to slowing and preventing the spread of the new coronavirus. This ambition is a step closer to reality since President Donald Trump announced Monday that he plans to expand testing for the virus.

The announcement is in sharp contrast to remarks he made in June to a rally of his supporters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that he had instructed his staff to slow testing for the virus, despite warnings from experts who say the current level of testing is not nearly enough. Currently, about 500,000 people are being tested for the virus daily. Economist Paul Romer has said 30 million tests should be conducted daily, and a model developed by the Safra Center at Harvard University calls for 10 million tests a day. The Global Health Institute at Harvard developed a model that determined 900,000 tests a day would be acceptable.

Trump, who announced recently that he and the first lady had tested positive for COVID-19, said 150 million Abbott Laboratories rapid point-of-care tests will be distributed nationwide in the coming weeks. About 50 million of those tests will go to the most vulnerable communities, including 18 million for nursing homes, 15 million for assisted living facilities, 10 million for home health and hospice agencies, and nearly 1 million for historically Black colleges and universities, as well as tribal nation colleges.

Keeping Campuses Safe

Testing is perhaps most critical on college campuses, whether they serve vulnerable populations or not, as they’ve proven to be hotbeds for the spread of COVID-19. At the University of Colorado-Boulder, for example, students arriving on campus had to submit to two tests for COVID-19 and wait for the results before being permitted to enter a residence hall. First, they spit into a tube. Then, they scraped a swab across the inside of each nostril. Finally, they handed off their samples to a team of students, postdoctoral researchers, or EMTs-in-training who take the samples away for processing. Results can be returned in as little as 45 minutes.

“The idea is that if we can keep unknowingly infected students from ever stepping into the dorm on the first day, many of those transmission chains that would have started will not start,” said Professor Sara Sawyer, whose team of virologists began work on the so-called RT-LAMP test shortly after the coronavirus began to make headlines.

Even so, nearly 1,200 students and 12 staff members at the university have confirmed cases of COVID-19, causing the university to switch to remote learning for at least two weeks and prompting hundreds of students to withdraw from school.

“While rapid diagnostic testing is an important piece to slowing the spread of the virus, it’s by no means foolproof because the virus can’t be detected through testing immediately after a person is exposed,” Dan Larremore, an assistant professor in the University of Colorado’s Department of Computer Science and the BioFrontiers Institute, said during an August 10 webinar. “As the virus replicates itself over the next five days it hits a peak, and infected people may start to develop symptoms.”

“After that peak viral load when you start to get symptoms, the viral load decreases over time,” he said. “So usually when we think about tests, we ask what can a test detect if you’re infected. But the truth is that the answer depends on when during your infection we’re actually able to test.”

Competitive Landscape

As of August 27, nearly 80 million people had been tested for the virus in the United States, with 9% or 6.8 million of them testing positive for COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The global market for rapid medical diagnostic kits is estimated at $24.9 billion, a number that’s projected to reach $34 billion by 2027. In the United States, the market for the kits is estimated at $6.7 billion.

The rapid medical diagnostic testing market is highly competitive, with nearly 30 companies vying for dominance. In addition to Chicago-based Abbott Laboratories, other notable companies making rapid diagnostic tests for COVID-19 include Becton, Dickinson and Co. in Franklin Lakes, NJ.; Enzo Life Sciences in Farmingdale, NY.; Roche Diagnostics in Basel, Switzerland; and Siemens Healthineers in Erlangen, Germany.

COVID-19 has claimed the lives of more than 1 million people worldwide and over 200,000 in the United States. Testing is crucial for slowing and preventing the spread of the virus. It can determine if people are infected regardless of whether they are displaying symptoms. People who test positive can isolate themselves to protect others. It also helps contact tracers find people an infected person may have exposed.

Short of a vaccine, rapid diagnostic testing — and wearing masks — is the best way to stop the spread of the virus. Pfizer has said that a vaccine could be ready by the end of October, a claim that has drawn the president’s attention who has made clear his wishes for a vaccine to be available before Election Day, November 3.

But most experts agree that if a vaccine is released before it is properly tested, it could jeopardize public safety.

About the Author

Headshot for author Margaret Jackson

Margaret is an award-winning journalist who spent nearly 25 years in the newspaper industry. She has covered a variety of business topics, including residential and commercial real estate, technology, telecommunications, and cannabis.

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