Did Our “Testing Fiasco” Really Matter Much In the End?

Watchara Phomicinda/Orange County Register via ZUMA

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An ICU doctor writes to tell me that the problem with false negatives on the coronavirus test is worldwide:

It’s been reported in the US, China, and Italy for a number of weeks that the sensitivity of the RT-PCR swab test for COVID-19 is not great. To put it simply, the issues aren’t specific to the US version(s) of the COVID-19 tests….We’ve known from very early on in the outbreak that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has higher affinity for receptors that are in the lower respiratory tract than it does for those in the NP/OP region like typical circulating coronaviruses. Given the dangers to healthcare workers of attaining lower respiratory specimens and the massively increased resources to do so safely, no country has moved to expectorated sputum samples outside of hospitalized patients, and even then only rarely.

This issue was obvious and widespread to Chinese and Italian authorities who have published numerous studies that predominantly used CT scans looking for a particular pattern of lung disease that most COVID-19 patients seem to demonstrate.

Not sure if that’s helpful or not, but this is something that physicians have rather widely understood for a number of weeks, but has not appeared to reach national leaders, which is sad.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been posting daily updates on the spread of COVID-19 in western countries, and one of the things that’s caught my attention is the fact that virtually every country seems to be on the same track. Some are farther along (Italy, Spain) and some still have a ways to go (France, USA), but the growth curve looks awfully similar in every case. But how can that be if every country has different testing regimens?

Without any explanation for this, I’ve been reluctant to speculate. But perhaps the explanation is the poor sensitivity of the COVID-19 PCR test? To put it bluntly, if the test is so bad that it misses a third of all cases, how much does testing even matter? I can even imagine that widespread testing might be detrimental if it produces a big pool of people who are infected with COVID-19 but feel confident that they aren’t.

If this is the case, it would also mean that the testing fiasco in the United States didn’t really have much effect. We didn’t “squander” two or three weeks of time. In the end, it hardly mattered at all.

For now, consider this speculation. But I would sure like to hear from some experts about it.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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