November 14, 2020
A new generation of faster, cheaper coronavirus tests is starting to hit the market. And some experts say these technologies could finally give the U.S. the ability to adopt a new, more effective testing strategy.
"On the horizon — the not too distant horizon — there are a whole series of testing modalities coming on line," says Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health. "And that gives us hope we can really expand our testing capacity in the nation."
Until now, testing has been primarily used to diagnose people who may have COVID-19 and any of their close contacts who may also be infected. But a stubborn shortage of the molecular tests most commonly used — and slow turnaround time for results — has hobbled the nation's ability to stop outbreaks and contain the pandemic.
That could change, argue Jha and other public health researchers, as new rapid tests — primarily antigen tests — become more widely available, enabling communities to start widespread screening of the highest-risk people.
"It is a paradigm shift," Jha says. "What I think new testing capacity allows us to do is actually play offense — go and hunt for the disease before it spreads to identify asymptomatic people before they spread it to others. It really becomes about preventing outbreaks — not just capturing them after they've occurred."
Jha and a team at the Harvard Global Health Institute have periodically evaluated how much testing the country and individual states need to effectively fight the spread of the virus.
In a new analysis the group completed for NPR, researchers developed daily testing targets, showing what would be needed to routinely screen large numbers of asymptomatic people. The researchers factored in the growing availability of the rapid coronavirus tests.