Commentary: Scientific sampling essential in the fight against COVID-19

By Dan Cannon

By most measures, the United States is, more or less, starting a long, painful struggle against the highly infectious and lethal COVID-19.

Both South Korea and the U.S reported corona virus infections starting about the same time.

But right from the start, South Korea initiated massive testing (currently 10 times the U.S. number) and follow-up treatment.  Using lessons from the 2015 MERS coronavirus outbreak, South Korea’s systematized and highly coordinated testing identifies those who are infected, allowing for speedy and relatively effective early treatments and measures. 

To date those efforts have apparently checked the spread of the virus in South Korea and helped flatten the rate of infection curve, lessening pressure on their health care system.

However, in the U.S. some six to seven weeks later, we find ourselves with at least three regional infection spikes while still lacking not only enough tests and testing supplies, but, more importantly, lacking a larger coherent action plan beyond “shelter in place” edicts in some areas/situations. 

It is not too late to put more coherent, effective plans into place.

As suggested by Neeraj Sood in the 3/16/20 Wall Street Journal, the federal government – meaning Trump’s executive branch – should immediately plan, initiate and evaluate a massive scientific testing program.

Per Dr. Sood, testing needs to be massive but not for everyone in the usual medical sense. Instead, much more on-going testing needs to be done to identify those who carry the virus, in order to facilitate quarantines to reduce transmissions and to treat the sick. 

The effectiveness of this kind of testing is being demonstrated by South Korea’s apparent early successes.

For the long run, Dr. Sood’s suggestion of massive continuous testing goes far beyond straightforward identification for treatment measures. 

His well-reasoned assertion (surely endorsed by every epidemiologist alive) is that randomized sampling/testing of populations around the U.S. is needed to provide sound, reliable, scientific data about the depth and breadth of the infection, information needed as the basis for planning. 

Moreover, there is an existing wealth of scientific expertise at virtually every college/university in the U.S. that would likely jump at the chance to help do this NOW.

While scientific testing and data cannot provide all the answers in this crisis, it certainly could help channel systematic effort into a highly coordinated direction, instead of the current thoughtful but piecemeal and relatively uncoordinated efforts. It will work much better for everyone to have access to and use the same reliable information for making future critical decisions about momentous health and economic issues.

Let’s turn National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Dr. Anthony Fauci and his colleagues loose to become much more proactive!

Dan Cannon lives in Seaford.