Some public health experts hope the growing availability of faster, cheaper tests could lead to a new strategy of widespread testing — one that could finally get the pandemic under control.



More than 7.2 million people have tested positive for the coronavirus in the U.S. And as health experts warn of a difficult winter ahead, they're also asking if the U.S. needs an entirely new testing strategy. A new generation of coronavirus tests that are faster and cheaper could make that possible. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been looking into this and joins us. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What would a new testing strategy mean?

STEIN: Well, there's been a lot of buzz lately among public health experts about an entirely new way of thinking about testing. You know, until now, testing has been mainly used to diagnose people who may have COVID and to test people who had contact with an infected person to see if they caught the virus. But that just hasn't gotten the pandemic under control. So I talked about this with Ashish Jha. He's the dean of the Brown School of Public Health. He says this new generation of fast, cheap coronavirus tests could spark a paradigm shift in how testing is used in this country.

ASHISH JHA: It is a paradigm shift. 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.

STEIN: You know, by regularly testing people like all nursing home residents and staff, every prison inmate and guard, firefighters, police, EMTs, teachers and other staff in K-12, university students.

MARTIN: So, I mean, cheaper, faster - that all sounds good. How accurate are the new tests?

STEIN: So these new tests tend to be less accurate. They can produce more false negatives, you know, missing people when they really are infected and more false positives, saying someone is infected when they're really not. But advocates say these tests tend to spot people when they're the most infectious, which is the most important thing. And any shortcomings are outweighed by the ability to quickly test people over and over and over again.

MARTIN: So, I mean, we've heard this for a long time, that you just need more tests, you got to test more people in order to catch it. But it's been a capacity issue, hasn't it, all along? I mean, how many of these tests would the U.S. need?

STEIN: So, you know, Jha and a team at Harvard just completed a new analysis for NPR factoring in the growing availability of these new coronavirus tests. It concludes that at a bare minimum, the U.S. would need more than 4 million tests a day.

MARTIN: Do we have that?

STEIN: So, you know, the U.S. has never gotten above about a million tests a day. But these new fast tests - they're known as antigen tests - are becoming more widely available. The federal government just started sending 150 million of them to states. Again, the companies are ramping up to produce tens of millions of them. So by some estimates, the U.S. could maybe get there by the end of the year. Here's Dr. Thomas Tsai, one of the Harvard researchers working with Jha.

THOMAS TSAI: We've been holding our breath as a country for the last months waiting for a new technology, waiting for more capacity for testing. But this is a moment for us to capitalize on the technology and let's us reopen parts of the economy and schools with confidence.

STEIN: Now, it's important to remember that, you know, 4 million is just the bare minimum. This new analysis also concludes that the U.S. needs way more than that, more than 14 million tests a day, to do things like screen school kids and doctors and nurses and waiters and bartenders. But, you know, there are some projections the U.S. testing capacity could ramp up, you know, even more by next year. And that - you know, so it's really important to figure out a good strategy to deploy these tests in the smartest way to make this new strategy really work.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Stein, thank you.

STEIN: You bet, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.