Virus testing is a ‘failing,’ leaving cases uncounted

NEW YORK (AP) — Seven weeks have passed since the first United States (US) case of COVID-19 was announced, and the government is failing to account for what could be thousands of additional infections because of ongoing problems with testing.

“The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” said top Infectious Disease Expert at the National Institutes of Health Dr Anthony Fauci. “That is a failing. It is a failing, let’s admit it.”

The effort initially was hobbled by delays in getting testing kits out to public health labs, but the stumbles have continued, leading scientists to conclude that the virus has taken root in more places than government officials say.

US health officials, for example, promised nearly a month ago to tap into a national network of labs that monitor for flu. That system is only just getting started.

Large-scale testing is a critical part of tracking the spread of infectious diseases and allocating resources for treatment. The lack of comprehensive figures means US health providers could quickly be overwhelmed by undetected cases.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported about 1,260 US illnesses — a number that trailed independent researchers, who are adding reports from individual states more quickly.

But some experts believe any number based on test results of individual patients is a dramatic undercount. Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles this week estimated that the true count of infections was close to 9,000 — about two weeks ago.

“I expect there are more infected individuals now,” said one of the researchers, Dr Jonathan Braun. “This means that the level of disease in the US is much greater than has been reported by actual testing.”

The problem, these experts said, “The US simply isn’t testing enough people.”

There are no official numbers from the federal government on the country’s overall testing capacity. One of the only comprehensive estimates comes from former FDA commissioner Dr Scott Gottlieb, who is now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

As of Thursday, his group estimated US labs could process results for over 20,000 patients per day. The figure is based on a combination of publicly reported information and historical estimates from government, private and academic labs. It reflects the total number of patient results that could be processed in a day, not the current number being run.

But earlier this week, nearly a month after the announcement, doctors and scientists were still awaiting word on whether that surveillance system was up and running.

On Thursday, the CDC revealed that some labs had begun the testing. But the list of test sites had changed, and the agency did not explain why.