We desperately need millions of tests and adequate test supplies before we can get ahead of this infection. We need to know who is infected so we can strictly isolate them and to protect our first responders, and we need to know who has been infected and presumably has immunity so they can return to work and so we can understand the spread of the infection. Here are the types of tests:
1, Tests to show who is infected right now. Think of the rapid strep test that is done in walk-in clinics. These Covid-19 tests look for RNA evidence of the virus itself in a person who thinks they are ill or who has been exposed. The tests need to be rapid, like 15 minutes rapid so they can be done in the doctor’s office. These tests need to be sensitive, meaning they need to identify infected people even if their viral load is low or the specimen is less than ideal. (To do otherwise means that someone who is “truly infected” will be labeled as “not infected.”) They are done by a nasal swab, which is a problem right now. The world’s supply of nasal swabs is made in a factory in northern Italy, which has been closed down for a month.
2. Tests to who has been infected and is presumably immune. For example, once someone has been infected with measles, they will have detectable antibodies to measles for the rest of their life. Right now, we need antibody tests for the antibody (the body’s infection-fighting response) to Covid-19. Antibodies will show us 1) who is immune (we hope) and can safely return to work and 2) give us a sense of the total number of people who were infected whether they knew it or not.
Hundreds of scientists and researchers and manufacturers are working furiously to develop, build, and distribute the tests we need. We also need federal money to support the research and plans for distribution of the tests.