Scientists need space and funding

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The combination of more testing and enhanced public health measures dramatically drove down the percentage of tests that return a positive result, or the test positivity rate


For the past few months, almost every headline beginning “coronavirus testing” has made my heart sink.

Rather than following the lead of nations like South Korea, which recognised long ago that widespread testing is the cornerstone of an effective pandemic response, Western governments were initially slow to commit to scaling up testing capacity. As poor testing numbers hit the headlines, some, like the UK, tried to massage those numbers to give the illusion that they were making greater progress than they were. In the US, President Donald J. Trump took an even more extreme tack, proposing that the country “slow testing down” in order to suppress reported case numbers.

None of it worked. By playing politics with coronavirus testing numbers and subsequently getting caught, governments undermined public faith in their data. But they also distracted us all from what has, in many respects, been a tremendously successful scientific effort to develop, scale up, and deploy coronavirus tests around the world. While the political story of coronavirus testing is anything but uplifting, the scientific story offers a lot more hope.

Let’s start at the beginning. The first cluster of unexplained and alarming pneumonia cases, later revealed to be Covid-19, was reported to the World Health Organization on December 31, 2019. On January 10, 2020, Chinese scientists shared with the world the first draft genetic sequence for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. Within a week, scientists at the German Centre for Infection Research in Berlin had used that sequencing data to develop the first test – a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test – capable of detecting specific genetic sequences unique to the novel coronavirus.

And so, less than a month after the first case was reported, the first lab-based tests for SARS-CoV-2 were ready for use. Such a rapid timeline would have been almost incomprehensible just 10 years ago. Once the technology was available to test for the virus, focus shifted to getting those tests into play. Having learned from their past experiences, East Asian nations led the way. By the end of January, genetic sequencing goliath BGI Group had already distributed 50,000 coronavirus testing kits across China. By the end of February, South Korea had processed more than 85,000 tests.

Meanwhile, Western nations were struggling to scale up their testing capacity. Industry, however, was quick to respond. Scientific and pharmaceutical giants like Thermo Fisher, QIAGEN, and Roche moved to ramp up manufacturing, and by the end of March, millions of new testing kits were making their way off production lines and into circulation.

With testing capacity increased, the challenge became finding ways to get tests to the people who need them. With most of its population stuck at home in lockdown, the UK embraced a new approach: home delivery kits. In late April, Amazon announced it would begin using its vast network of warehouses, trucks, and drivers to deliver Covid-19 tests to homes all across the UK, allowing people to remain isolated at home if they thought they had the virus. Royal Mail, the UK’s postal service provider, also began helping to deliver and swiftly return tests for processing. These two partnerships enabled the UK to turbocharge its testing programme, almost doubling the number of tests performed each day from around 30,000 to almost than 70,000 in the space of less than a week.

The combination of more testing and enhanced public health measures dramatically drove down the percentage of tests that return a positive result, or the test positivity rate.

Now scientists have turned their attention to creating faster, cheaper, simpler, and more portable tests. We’re already seeing promising innovations on that front, from Columbia University’s simple coronavirus “spit test” to a smartphone-driven test from the Universities of Brunel, Lancaster, and Surrey in the UK. Both tests can turn around a result in just 30 minutes, and don’t need to be sent out to a lab. Meanwhile, researchers in China and Israel are taking the first steps towards a Covid-19 breathalyser test, which could give an on-the-spot result in under a minute.

Such rapid, affordable, and portable testing for SARS-CoV-2 – even if not as accurate as traditional lab tests – could open up a world of opportunities to quarantine more effectively, and quickly become the most powerful tool we have to slow the spread of Covid-19 and get back to “business as normal.”

If the story of coronavirus testing has shown us anything, it’s what the global science community can accomplish when they come together and dedicate themselves to a common goal. Let’s hope that our political leaders give our scientists the space and the funding they need to carry on, and that they’ll listen to them a little earlier next time.

  • Aran Shaunak is a freelance journalist and science communicator with an academic background in human biology, pathology, and the spread of infectious diseases.

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