By Ron Chiarello
The COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the US has ramped up to several million doses per day, dominating headlines for much of 2021.
This intense media focus on vaccination places us at risk of overlooking an important advance that is needed to manage current and future pandemics: the development of low cost, at-home rapid testing for infectious diseases.
Given the swift pace of vaccination in the U.S., it’s easy to be lulled into thinking that a return to normalcy is around the corner and worries about COVID-19 infections will soon fade into the past. However, a look at the numbers shows that even an advanced country such as the U.S. still has plenty of work to do to achieve the 70% to 85% vaccination rates needed to obtain herd immunity, given vaccine hesitancy and the emergence of new variants.
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A recent Bloomberg analysis estimates that while the U.S. may achieve herd immunity in 2022 (which is far from certain) it would take the rest of the world seven years to get there at the current pace of vaccination. Similarly, The Economist recently reported that 85 less-developed countries, primarily in the Southern Hemisphere, will not have widespread access to the vaccine before 2023.
The takeaway, realistically, is that COVID-19 is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. In the best-case scenario, the COVID-19 of the future becomes a more benign virus with symptoms more like other viruses connected to the “common cold” today. Accordingly, instead of “beating” the virus, we need to shift our focus to better managing it.
People across the world, whether they live in developed or emerging economies, need access to rapid, self-administered COVID-19 tests to help slow the disease’s progression until we achieve herd immunity. In fact, these types of test will be needed to distinguish between a variety of acute respiratory infections that display common symptoms, such as influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and even pneumonia. In this way, each disease can be treated with specificity. Unfortunately, there is a long way to go before we get to the point of widespread availability for rapid testing.
In the U.S. alone, we need to perform about six million daily tests to stop outbreaks from growing and protect the most vulnerable, according to a recent analysis from researchers at Brown and Harvard universities. However, as of late March, the nation’s daily testing count stood at less than two million per day and has never exceeded three million in one day since the onset of the pandemic. Across the developing world, it’s a certainty that the daily-testing picture is significantly bleaker.