December 11, 2020

Credit: Sarah Leeson

If you have a cough or a fever nowadays, you know exactly what to do: go to the doctor, get a COVID test, and quarantine so you can stop the spread. But we also know that plenty of people contract COVID-19 and transmit it before they know they have it  —  and some people never even realize that they are contagious at all. So, when it comes to asymptomatic carriers, how do you shut down the line of transmission?

According to Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and immunologist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the answer is wide-scale and frequent rapid testing. The tests are cheap, effective enough to find the superspreaders, and currently exist in large numbers in some countries. However, in the U.S. there is no easy access to at-home, instant-result rapid test. 

Main Takeaways:

  • An effective vaccine that is widely distributed is what the world is looking forward to as the finish line for the pandemic. However, it will be months before vaccines have reached enough people for the population to achieve herd immunity. In the meantime, rapid testing could get us a few steps closer to life as it once was. Dr. Mina imagines people incorporating rapid tests into their daily lives so we consistently know who is and is not contagious. This would allow us to return to schools or air travel with a much higher degree of safety.
  • In some other countries like Germany, rapid tests are already readily available for purchase without a health provider’s referral and for as little as five euros. The tests are as simple as a pregnancy test, take just a few minutes, and the results can be read in real-time from home. Rapid tests aren’t as sensitive or accurate as the PCR test you might get at a doctor’s office, but they could be an excellent tool for identifying people who are actively shedding the virus and pose a risk to those around them. Indeed, Slovakia has used these tests to turn the tide of the pandemic in their country.
  • Mina says that some of the roadblocks he’s encountering, while advocating for greater rapid testing accessibility, stems from the fact that testing for infectious diseases hasn’t been done this way before in the U.S. For example, to get a flu test, you have to go to the doctor’s office. Having the ability to self-test, without a lab or the health industry involved, would be a paradigm shift that organizations like the FDA seem to be balking at. According to Dr. Mina, though, “This is a novel pandemic. Somebody has to do it first.”

More Reading:

  • The Biden administration has put out a plan to combat COVID-19, and rapid testing is part of the picture. You can read more here
  • LabCentral, BioLabs and E25Bio set up a consortium to provide testing as part of a safe back to work strategy and E25Bio’s efforts to get its rapid test available for over-the-counter purchase. You can read more about the testing consortium and E25Bio’s test and the collaboration it took to develop it.
  • Dr. Michael Mina has ideas about how to stop the spread of the virus before the holidays. For his plan to work, he asks leaders to “think strategically and creatively, be bold, and most importantly, not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” Check out his article here.
  • We spoke with Dr. Joshua Schiffer, an infectious disease specialist, on the show back in October. Catch that conversation here to learn more about the “swiss cheese” effect of employing a variety of safety practices (including rapid testing) to beat the pandemic.

COVID-19, rapid testing, Michael Mina, testing

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