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This is the key to ending the coronavirus pandemic – but no one’s even talking about it

Published Aug 27th, 2020 9:00AM EDT
Cure For Covid
Image: Luca Lorenzelli/Adobe

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  • The world is anxiously awaiting a cure for covid and dozens of promising therapies are currently being developed by pharmaceutical companies around the world.
  • There are also more than 150 noteworthy coronavirus vaccines in development, with at least a handful of effective vaccines expected to receive emergency use authorization from the FDA before the end of the year.
  • What many people don’t realize is that we don’t need to wait for a coronavirus vaccine or even effective therapies to stop the coronavirus pandemic — the solution is staring us in the face, but we lack the leadership to set the plan in motion.

With more than 24 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 822,000 deaths around the world having been caused by COVID-19 complications, there are still no signs that the coronavirus pandemic might come to an end anytime soon. This is particularly true in the United States, where an abysmal response from the White House and a perilous sense of entitlement among many citizens has led to the worst coronavirus outbreak in the world. The stunning lack of leadership from the current administration is directly responsible for the scale of the devastation in the US, where more than 5.84 million cases have been confirmed and more than 180,000 people have died of complications related to COVID-19. Now, schools are reopening across the country with no meaningful guidance whatsoever from the federal government. Thousands upon thousands of cases have already been confirmed among children and teachers, and most schools have only been open for a week or two. One school district in Florida alone recorded nearly 9,000 coronavirus cases within 15 days of reopening.

There is no question that the novel coronavirus pandemic would have wreaked havoc in the US whether or not the government had acted sooner. But there is also no question that much of the devastation could have been avoided. Trump’s insane ramblings early on suggesting that COVID-19 was no worse than the flu and that it would go away on its own were utterly disastrous. He then politicized the pandemic and his base bought the bait hook, line, and sinker. Even now, so many Trump supporters still refuse to take the coronavirus seriously until it’s too late — like the Texas man who thought COVID-19 was a liberal hoax and that “Democrats were using it to create panic, crash the economy and destroy Trump’s chances at re-election.” Then, his recklessness spread the coronavirus to his entire family, ultimately killing at least one of his relatives.

The real shame in all this is — beyond the unnecessary death toll and the ongoing, crippling symptoms that many COVID-19 survivors continue to face long after recovery — is that we’re now in something of a holding pattern.

More than 150 coronavirus vaccines are currently in development, and at least a few of them are expected to be granted emergency use authorization before the end of the year. Healthcare workers, other frontline workers, and some people in high-risk categories will be the first to be inoculated. Then, hopefully by sometime in the first or second quarter of 2021, the rest of us will start to gain access to vaccines. In the meantime, many COVOD-19 therapies are being developed around the world that could have a tremendous impact by reducing complications and deaths. Monoclonal antibody drugs, in particular, are showing promise because they may be able to treat sick patients while also providing temporary coronavirus immunity to healthy individuals.

That all sounds great, but we still have a long wait ahead of us before coronavirus vaccines and therapies are widely available. What many people don’t realize, however, is that we shouldn’t even have to wait for them to effectively end the coronavirus pandemic. We could do it right now, but it would take two big changes and the US is too far gone to handle either.

First, the overwhelming majority of the population in the US would need to take the virus seriously. As we all know, coronavirus deniers and lunatic anti-maskers aren’t just a danger to themselves, they’re a danger to everyone. This is because people can spread COVID-19 without showing any symptoms, as plenty of studies and a mountain of anecdotal evidence has proven. Careless people end up catching the potentially deadly respiratory disease and they often spread it for days without even realizing they’re sick.

Sadly, the second thing that would need to happen is even less likely: the Trump administration would need to get its act together. We would need a massive nationwide testing campaign of unprecedented scale because testing and contact tracing are crucial. Many experts believe that the bulk of COVID-19 spread occurs when people don’t know they’re sick and don’t quarantine as a result. If people were tested on a weekly or even daily basis, this problem could be all but eliminated.

Believe it or not, the task actually isn’t as daunting as it seems. Sure, it’s an impossibility with the current administration in place, but the logistics really aren’t as complicated as they sound. We’re not suggesting that everyone in America should line up and have their noses swabbed for a PCR test on a daily basis. Instead, there already exists a coronavirus testing solution that is cheap, easy to distribute, and can be self-administered at home. What’s more, results are available in a matter of minutes instead of days, which is how long it takes to get most results from PCR tests. Sometimes test results can take a week or longer to be delivered, which is obviously problematic.

Earlier this month, Dr. Michael Mina of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital held a call with the press. Mina is an epidemiologist at Harvard and an expert in disease testing. During the call, he brought attention to a new type of COVID-19 test that practically no one is talking about right now. It’s a cheap test that might cost as little as $1, and it’s simple to self-administer at home. According to Mina, it could be “as effective as a vaccine at interrupting coronavirus transmission,” as noted in a recent article by The Harvard Gazette.

The tests in question are paper-based tests that provide rapid results, and they’re already being developed by several companies including Sherlock Bioscience, E25 Bio, and a company everyone is familiar with in the age of the novel coronavirus: 3M, which is working with MIT researchers in an effort to create a paper-based COVID-19 test that the company likens to a pregnancy test. The tests aren’t as accurate as PCR tests performed in a lab, but that’s actually much less of a problem than you might think. From The Harvard Gazette:

Several hurdles stand in the way for widespread dissemination of the tests, Mina said. Perhaps the largest hurdle is regulatory. The Food and Drug Administration, in charge of approving diagnostic tests, has held up approval because the tests aren’t as accurate as nasal-swab, lab-based tests. While that would matter if they were intended as an individual diagnostic tool, Mina said that from a public health viewpoint, they are accurate enough to provide critical initial screening on a large scale. Positive test results could be followed up by a visit to the doctor and a more accurate nasal swab test or, if illness weren’t that severe, by daily testing until a person is negative.

That’s the key, right there. Daily, self-administered testing performed at home with cheap paper strip tests would be our first line of defense. A positive result would be then backed up by a PCR test administered by a healthcare professional. It would quite literally be a game-changer. These tests are quick and easy to produce — Mina noted that millions of paper strip tests can easily be printed each week. The tests are also cheap and would cost the country far less than a stimulus package.

“It will stop the vast majority of transmission and it will cause these outbreaks to disappear in a matter of weeks,” Dr. Mina said. “This is something we can actually do at warp speed.”

Unfortunately, the other big hurdle aside from regulatory approval is the one that is insurmountable: The US government would have to spearhead this massive effort, and the current administration is obviously not up to the task.

Zach Epstein
Zach Epstein Executive Editor

Zach Epstein has been the Executive Editor at BGR for more than 10 years. He manages BGR’s editorial team and ensures that best practices are adhered to. He also oversees the Ecommerce team and directs the daily flow of all content. Zach first joined BGR in 2007 as a Staff Writer covering business, technology, and entertainment.

His work has been quoted by countless top news organizations, and he was recently named one of the world's top 10 “power mobile influencers” by Forbes. Prior to BGR, Zach worked as an executive in marketing and business development with two private telcos.