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  •   Home > News > International

    Donald Trump says the US leads on coronavirus tests, but some experts want 30 million more a day

    The US has so far tested more than 30 million people for COVID-19. But some experts say the only way America can contain its coronavirus outbreak and return to normal life is by testing that many people every day.

    After months of lockdown and more than 120,000 COVID-19 deaths, an economist has floated a tempting idea that could see Americans free to return to work, catch public transport, and go to nightclubs and restaurants.

    It comes from Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Romer, who says he could restore America to a relatively normal life until a coronavirus vaccine is found.

    The catch?

    Every single American would need to be tested for COVID-19 once a fortnight.

    That means between 20 and 30 million tests would need to be performed each day. It would be a dramatic increase from America's current daily rate of more than 400,000.

    Reaching Professor Romer's goal would require a huge nationwide effort that would cost the country more than $US1.5 billion ($2 billion) a week.

    But he says the ambitious program would be worth the expense.

    "An annual investment in testing until all Americans have been vaccinated would pay for itself many times over," he wrote in his proposal, Roadmap to Responsibly Reopen America.

    "We must choose between fighting this virus with all of America's resources, intellect, and will, or surrendering because an answer we can have confidence in feels too hard to execute."

    How do you test 20-30 million people a day?

    Professor Romer is not the only economist who believes America can test its way out of its spiralling coronavirus outbreak.

    A team of experts led by Harvard University says the pandemic is as much a threat to American democracy as the Great Depression.

    They say testing millions of people every day "will require rapid coordination of business activity unprecedented since World War II".

    Tens of millions of testing kits would need to be manufactured and distributed, and thousands more health workers would need to be trained to administer them.

    At least 100,000 people would also need to be recruited as contact tracers to swiftly deal with any outbreaks.

    The cost of testing everyone is enormous

    No country has tried something quite this ambitious.

    Chinese health authorities said they tested 1.47 million people in the coronavirus epicentre Wuhan back in May.

    But that was achieved through batch or pool testing, where samples from about 10 people are processed at once. If a positive result comes back, they then test the individual samples.

    Professor Romer says the process could also be used in the US if health regulations were changed.

    Iceland has tested more than 10 per cent of its population.

    The small Nordic nation has just 364,000 residents in total, while there are more than 328 million people living in the US.

    But Kari Stefansson, whose company helped implement Iceland's testing regime, told CNBC he believes it would be "even easier" to replicate in America.

    "You have all of this talent, all of this equipment in your universities, that could simply be drafted to apply to this epidemic," he said.

    Some public health experts still insist that mass testing a large population is logistically impossible, and the priority should be on social distancing.

    "My concern would be we give people the false impression that getting tested is what will prevent the epidemic from spreading. It's not. It's their behaviour," Jonathan Quick, a professor of public health, told the World Affairs podcast.

    But keeping everyone in endless lockdowns in the hope that a vaccine will eventually be developed is destroying the economy, according to the economists.

    "The cost of such testing and tracing … is dwarfed by the economic cost of continued collective quarantine of $140 to $500 billion a month," the Harvard researchers said.

    Professor Romer said a massive testing effort is the only way Americans can swiftly return to their normal lives.

    "The disagreement here is about the logistics. Can we get to that number of tests? My answer would be we sure as hell better try," he said.

    Trump insists America is a world leader on testing

    After starting to trend downward for several weeks, America's coronavirus infection rate is once again soaring.

    The US reported 34,700 new cases on June 24, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. That's the highest daily tally since April.

    There is a "disturbing surge in infections" in states like Arizona, Texas and California, America's top infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci told Congress.

    The White House is also preparing for the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus as the weather cools down in October.

    But it doesn't appear that President Donald Trump is considering these expert calls for more widespread testing.

    In fact, he has insisted that the virus will "fade away", even if a vaccine is never found.

    He told supporters at a rally in Tulsa that he instructed his administration to "slow down the testing" — and then denied claims from his aides that he was joking.

    Dr Fauci told Congress that he and his team have never been instructed by the Trump administration to scale back testing to hide the true number of infections in the US.

    "We're going to be doing more testing, not less," he said.

    But even though the US has tested more people than any other country, with more than 30 million conducted since the pandemic began, some public health experts say it's not nearly enough.

    The number of positive results they're recording indicates the nation "faces the largest outbreak in the world", experts at Johns Hopkins University point out.

    "A high rate of positive tests indicates a government is only testing the sickest patients who seek out medical attention and is not casting a wide enough net," they said.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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