Testing necessary to open the workplace and schools

Published 1:40 pm Tuesday, May 12, 2020

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All roads back to work and back to school lead through testing.
This week, the U.S. Senate health committee I chair held a hearing about efforts to create new technologies designed to produce tens of millions of COVID-19 tests.
Our country will soon be doing two million diagnostic tests for COVID-19 a week, which is an impressive number. But to contain the disease and give confidence to Americans that it is safe to leave our homes, we will need tens of millions of tests, many more than our current technologies can produce.
Testing is necessary to identify the small number of those with the disease and those exposed to it, so that they can be quarantined, instead of quarantining the whole country. Testing will help Americans traumatized by daily reports of the virus gain the confidence to go back to work and back to school.
The end to this crisis will be determined by three things: tests, treatments, and vaccines.
There is promising news that treatments and therapies will be available this summer. The administration’s warp-speed pursuit of a vaccine has a goal of 100 million doses by the fall and 300 million by January, a target much more ambitious than has ever been achieved before. And the private sector is demonstrating a capacity to turn out quickly tens of millions of serology tests — tests to determine whether you have had the disease and have antibodies that might create some immunity, at least for a time.
The president’s coronavirus task force reports that states have submitted their goals for testing for May and the administration is working to help supply media and swabs that states are not able to obtain on the commercial market.
That is all impressive — but it’s not nearly enough.
To test every nursing home, every prison, everyone in an operating room, and some entire classes, campuses, factories, teams at sporting events, and to give those tests more than once, we require millions of more tests. And this demand will only grow as the country goes back to work and back to school.
Working with my colleague from Missouri, Senator Roy Blunt, we included in the most recent coronavirus legislation $1.5 billion for a competitive “shark tank” led by Dr. Francis Collins of the National Institute of Health (NIH), who testified at our hearing this week. We allocated another $1 billion to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), to work with NIH to accelerate production of these tests. This initiative utilizes the capacities of government itself, in coordination with the private sector, to pull out all the stops and fast track new technologies designed to produce tens of millions of tests by August.
The NIH, only five days after the funding was signed into law, announced the official start of its shark tank program to boost the most promising testing technologies. There were 400 requests for applications in the first 24 hours. And we learned at the hearing that 79 applications have been submitted and over 1,000 applications have been started.
Many of these early stage concepts won’t work, or won’t be able to be scaled up quickly, but that’s OK. Thomas Edison said he failed 10,000 times before he produced the first incandescent light bulb. We hope we don’t have that many failures, but all we need are two or three successes, or maybe even just one.
Dr. Collins’ shark tank is at least a mini-Manhattan project — $2.5 billion does not go as far today as $2 billion did in 1942 for the original Manhattan Project, but it is a lot of money. And it is likely that at this moment more scientists are working to create solutions to COVID-19 than on any other project in the world. Their success in discovering new technologies to create simple diagnostic tests with quick results — and then safe and effective treatments and vaccines — is the only way this will end.
There is no safe path forward to combat the novel coronavirus without adequate testing. Let us hope that out of Dr. Collins’ shark tank will emerge at least one mighty great white shark that will help us combat this disease.

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