Health and Healthcare Systems

How different countries are approaching coronavirus testing

Bridget Parkhill (L) and sister Carmen Gray stand outside the room of their mother Susan Hailey, 76, who Parkhill says has been tested positive for coronavirus at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, the Seattle-area nursing home at the epicenter of one of the biggest coronavirus outbreaks in the United States, in Kirkland, Washington, U.S. March 10, 2020.  REUTERS/Jason Redmond - RC2HHF9STD4W

Image: REUTERS/Jason Redmond - RC2HHF9STD4W

John Letzing
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  • Some countries moved more quickly than others to broadly test for COVID-19.
  • While the US had a slow start, testing activity is picking up in a number of states.

The more than 150 countries and territories now reporting confirmed cases of COVID-19 share a desperate desire to stop its spread. But they’ve taken distinct approaches to testing for the coronavirus.

South Korea quickly tested a relatively large part of its population, and Iceland has managed to test an even higher percentage of its inhabitants. Other places have had a slower start. In the US, a country of roughly 329 million people, 8,554 specimens had been tested at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other labs as of 10 March – and multiple specimens are required per individual test. Perceptions of an initially sluggish testing pace have added to general concern. However, testing activity has picked up in a number of locations. The COVID Tracking Project has monitored the testing being done in each state (it acknowledges that its data isn’t perfect). This chart reflects the project’s data through 17 March:

Image: World Economic Forum

The degree of testing in any country can depend on criteria. The CDC, for example, initially applied a narrow view to who merited testing – only people who had recently traveled to China or had contact with someone infected qualified. On 4 March, the CDC expanded its criteria. Roughly two weeks later, on 17 March, the World Health Organization was reporting more than 179,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases globally, including about 3,500 in the US.

Spread of COVID-19 globally.
Spread of COVID-19 globally. Image: World Economic Forum

A country’s wherewithal when it comes to testing is a key measure of its ability to deal with the impact of COVID-19. The WHO has urged countries to test all suspected cases, and countries including Switzerland have begun to expand testing beyond only those patients showing severe symptoms. Some places have applied practical creativity to the problem – some 10 states in America have followed the example set by South Korea and established drive-through testing facilities.

For more context, here are links to more reading, courtesy of the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • "Invisible infections” – that’s the term being used for the many people who are suspected of having COVID-19 but haven’t been able to receive a proper test. The US in particular may have a substantial invisible population. (Scientific American)
  • Current COVID-19 tests have a big drawback: they only work when the virus is still present. The race is on to develop a test to identify people who had the virus but recovered, and researchers in Singapore may have won. (Science)
  • Americans may avoid getting tested due to a fear that they’ll have to pay a lot of money for it. California and New York have ordered insurers to cover testing and waive patient costs, but much uncertainty remains. (Kaiser Health News)
  • "We are to keep working until we develop symptoms ourselves. Only then will we be tested for the virus.” Doctors on the front lines of treating COVID-19 cases in Italy tell their stories. (Der Spiegel)
  • The White House’s response to the COVID-19, including problems with the federal government’s handling of testing for the coronavirus, is the subject of a House Oversight Committee investigation. (ProPublica)
  • Test kits may not be the only medical equipment in short supply. The US’s secretive $7 billion stash of emergency medical equipment – the Strategic National Stockpile – has come under fire for a perceived shortage of masks. (STAT)
  • Yet another drawback related to the fact that America only recently started widespread COVID-19 testing: we should brace for an even more hysterical media cycle. (Project Syndicate)
  • In the absence of a functioning, widely available primary care capacity, the US will have to establish ad hoc systems to advise and treat Americans who have COVID-19 related issues – real or feared. (Harvard Business Review)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to COVID-19, Global Health and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

Image: World Economic Forum
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