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Experts Warn Coronavirus Testing Must Be Far Broader To Quell U.S. Epidemic


Who should get tested for the coronavirus? The federal government advises that only certain groups should receive tests. But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, experts say testing must be far broader before the pandemic is under control.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Jeffrey Shaman has been watching this virus since it first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan. And right from the beginning, he noticed something odd.

JEFFREY SHAMAN: Not only was it exploding in its epicenter in Wuhan, but it moved very quickly geographically within China and then to other countries around the planet.

BRUMFIEL: Shaman is a researcher at Columbia University. He creates computer models of outbreaks. And when he plugged in the numbers, he found something alarming. The virus wasn't just being passed along by very sick people. Others with mild symptoms or maybe even no symptoms at all were actually behind most of the spread.

SHAMAN: They are responsible for the lion's share of the transmission in the community.

BRUMFIEL: These are people who never see a doctor because they never get that sick, but they can sicken others. So how to stop them? Shaman says there's really only one solution.

SHAMAN: Deliver a lot of tests. Do a lot of testing so people find out if they're mildly infected and they isolate themselves, and the people who know them quarantine themselves.

BRUMFIEL: But speaking at a White House briefing yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence delivered almost the opposite message. Don't get tested unless you're really sick.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: If you don't have symptoms, don't get a test. We want to make sure people who are having symptoms who have a concern have the ability to be tested and to have those tests processed.

BRUMFIEL: So what's going on?

SHAMAN: They're dealing with a reality which is we have far fewer tests than we need right now.

BRUMFIEL: Ashish Jha is director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. The reason for the lack of tests goes back to January and has to do with bureaucracy and technical blunders by the federal government.

ASHISH JHA: This has been a two-month debacle. Like, we could have had a testing framework up and running two months ago. We haven't. A series of mistakes - one mistake compounded by another by another.

BRUMFIEL: Given their scarcity, he says, he actually agrees with Pence. The sick and health care workers should be the ones who get tested. But without broader testing to find sick individuals and isolate them, the only way to stop the virus is to shut down everything. Emily Gurley is an associate scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

EMILY GURLEY: Being able to test folks is really the linchpin in getting beyond what we're doing now, which is, everyone, just stay home.

BRUMFIEL: She points out that broad testing seems to be helping countries like South Korea weather the virus. Now, expanded testing is only the first step. Systems of quarantine, isolation and treatment will still need to be set up. Not everyone agrees how all that should work. And in some areas like New York City, the virus is so pervasive, widespread social isolation may be the only thing that can stop it. But Gurley says...

GURLEY: The sooner that we can get testing up and running and online, the better off we're going to be.

BRUMFIEL: At the same briefing in which Pence reminded people not to ask for tests - at least, not for now - other officials said the administration is working hard to expand testing and that they hope the tests will shine a light on what to do next as America faces down the coronavirus.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.