Viewpoint: We can’t simply test our way out of the coronavirus pandemic

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Credit: Walmart

In response to calls for Covid-19 testing of the entire U.S. population, several large universities, and even some employers, have announced plans for extensive Covid-19 testing of their employees (and students) to support a safe return to work and school. These efforts are based on expert recommendations, some of which call for repeated testing of the entire population (using the PCR test) every 14 days, or even more often. Such initiatives could require millions of tests in the U.S. each and every day.

With each announcement, pressure grows on other organizations — and public health departments — to follow suit, potentially triggering a testing arms race. While mass Covid-19 testing might seem intuitive, its benefits are unlikely to meet the high expectations for it.

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According to a model developed by Imperial College London and the World Health Organization, based on these optimistic assumptions the impact of universal Covid-19 testing would reduce the number of Covid-19 cases by less than 10%.

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Other important harms of widespread testing include the real possibility that testing locations might serve as sites for congregation and thus promote the spread of SARS-CoV-2; the need for testers to don scarce personal protective equipment; and the fact that testing is resource intensive, time-consuming, and uncomfortable.

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