Mass testing on a regular basis may be powerful tool to end the pandemic. Experts say that along with a vaccine, testing as many people as possible for COVID-19 may help contain the spread of the virus and prevent the need for lockdowns.
Sir John Bell, a Canadian immunologist and geneticist at the University of Oxford in the U.K., says such a move “may well keep us out of trouble.”
In China, the city of Qingdao mass tested its entire population of over 9 million in five days. Slovakia is attempting to test its whole country, saying the only alternative to stop the rise of COVID-19 is to order a lockdown.
According to the BBC News, mass testing, like any medical screening, has its pros and cons. Like cancer screening, catching any disease early is beneficial. But Bell, who is advising the British government, warns that COVID-19 tests are not perfect and could result in a tremendous number of “false-positives” if you test everyone in a country. For example, if you test 60 million people twice weekly, it could mean that a quarter of a million of them will need to isolate themselves unnecessarily.
Since the tests also need high levels of virus to identify COVID-19, people with low levels will test negative 60% of the time. “Will there be people who are potentially infectious who test negative? Yes,” said Bell.
However, the expert added that even if the test found the virus in half of asymptomatic people, it would still be more effective than a lockdown. To stop one person from catching the virus, Bell said we would have to lockdown 1,000 people for a day. “That’s why people hate it, it is so inefficient,” he said.
Another problem with mass testing, even if the tests used are 100% accurate, is compliance, according to BBC News. Experts in the U.K. said that fewer than 30% of people would participate in the program, according to current data on testing and tracing.
However, there are several new developments that could make mass testing more convenient for people, such as rapid home testing, mandatory testing at schools and universities where the virus commonly spreads, and testing prior to a sporting event or other occasion.
According to USA Today, rapid antigen testing involves looking for certain proteins on the surface of the virus and the results are ready in 15 minutes. Right now, the government is pushing to test millions of Americans with these easy-to-administer tests that received emergency use approval by the Food and Drug Administration this summer. Although they are not as accurate as the gold standard PCR tests, they are convenient and can be administered at point-of-care.
Bell told the BBC that mass testing is a viable option to prevent further lockdowns since we do not have a vaccine.
“There is a possibility it may be the get out of jail card that we need,” he said.