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US needs to conduct 20 million coronavirus tests per day to reopen fully, Harvard report says

The Hill logo The Hill 4/20/2020 Justin Wise
a person in a blue blanket: US needs to conduct 20 million coronavirus tests per day to reopen fully, Harvard report says © Getty Images US needs to conduct 20 million coronavirus tests per day to reopen fully, Harvard report says

The U.S. will need to administer 20 million tests for the novel coronavirus each day by mid-summer in order to fully re-mobilize the economy in a safe fashion, according to new report from a Harvard panel of more than 45 experts in health, science and economics.

The figure far exceeds testing recommendations from other health experts. Former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has said that the country will need to initially conduct up to 3 million tests per week to reopen. A separate estimate from Harvard University researchers says the U.S. must conduct between 500,000 and 700,00 tests per day by mid-May to begin reopening.

The new report, released by Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics on Monday, emphasized the need for a massive scaling up of testing coupled with a robust contact-tracing program in order to reopen the U.S. in a way that avoids future shutdowns. Its top recommendations include a call for the nation to deliver 5 million tests per day by early June in order to ensure a safe reopening of portions of the economy.

"This number will need to increase over time (ideally by late July) to 20 million a day to fully remobilize the economy," the authors wrote, cautioning that even that figure may not be high enough to "protect public health."

The value in dramatically increasing testing is it will "prevent cycles of opening up and shutting down," the authors argued, adding that the testing output will allow the virus to be adequately managed until a vaccine is developed.

"This Roadmap is the only approach to BOTH contain the virus and ramp back up to vibrant economic life. And, in the long term, it allows us to build an infrastructure of pandemic resilience that will serve us well when the next health crisis or disaster hits, while improving community health," Danielle Allen, director of Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, said in a statement.

A rapid increase in testing capabilities will require both ramping up current efforts and pushing for innovation in testing methodologies, according to the report. The authors assert that the government should consider making investments to "incentivize the private sector to apply ingenuity and speed to develop solutions."

They said a Pandemic Testing Board established by the federal government could help organize these efforts and help ensure that adequate testing supply is allocated to different communities.

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In addition, the report said that an expansion of testing will need to be supported by adding roughly 100,000 contact tracers across the U.S. They also noted that efforts to isolate people vulnerable to the disease must include job protection and necessary health care services.

Testing at a rate of 20 million each day would cost about $15 billion each month, according to the report. Though the authors argue that the cost would fall over time and that it pales in comparison to the overall economic cost of continued stay-at-home orders.

Their call for 20 million daily tests is in line with recommendations from Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer, who said earlier this month that the U.S. needs to administer 20 to 30 million tests per day.

The U.S. has administered about 4 million tests for COVID-19 as of Monday afternoon, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Vice President Pence said Sunday that the country was averaging about 150,000 tests per day.

Pence and President Trump said last week that the U.S. had reached testing capacity in which states could begin gradually reopening once they experienced a decline in documented cases over a period of 14 days.

State officials have strongly pushed back against those statements. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said on CNN on Sunday that it was "absolutely false" to suggest that states had adequate testing supply, noting that shortages have been the number one problem since the virus reached the U.S.

Health officials have continually insisted that the U.S. will need comprehensive testing and contact-tracing programs in place in order to fully reopen businesses. Gottlieb said on NBC's "Today" on Monday that the the country likely wouldn't reach broad-based testing capacity until September.

"If we wait until we have sort of the optimal framework for testing, we'll be waiting until the fall and that's just not going to be possible from an economic, social or public health standpoint," he said.

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