COVID-19 testing in Mass. is ‘far short’ of levels needed to stop the spread

Nov 23, 2020Boston Globe, Council in the News

November 23, 2020
The Boston Globe
By Jon Chesto, Globe Staff

The Massachusetts High Technology Council recommends that federal, state, and local governments develop a systematic, expanded testing regime using multiple kinds of tests.

The number of COVID-19 tests taking place nationally and in Massachusetts still falls far short of what is necessary to win the fight against the coronavirus.

That was the consensus of a virtual panel discussion hosted Monday morning by the Massachusetts High Technology Council. There’s plenty of supply, but demand for the tests remains surprisingly low.

One key issue the panelists identified: the benefits of testing asymptomatic individuals who might be carrying the virus. Most people getting COVID-19 tests right now, they said, already have symptoms. But a broader survey of the population is necessary to curb the disease.

Another takeaway: A ramped-up testing infrastructure will remain crucial to public health, well after vaccines are widely available.

“It’s not at the pace we would have expected,” said Donna Hochberg, a partner at consultancy Health Advances who leads the firm’s diagnostics practice. “Testing really does help control the pandemic.”

Bain Capital cochair Steve Pagliuca, who leads the tech council’s COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, hosted the event on Monday. The tech council’s main goal is to educate employers and public leaders about the continued need to focus on testing strategies even as the fight against COVID-19 enters a new phase with the arrival of vaccines. In its latest report on the issue, the tech council recommended that federal, state, and local governments develop a systematic, expanded testing regime using multiple kinds of tests and employing public-private partnerships.

Pagliuca, also a co-owner of the Boston Celtics, noted how the number of tests is still falling short even in Massachusetts — a state that is considered a leader in this regard.

In the spring, the tech council recommended that at least 100,000 COVID-19 tests per day take place in Massachusetts by the end of June. The council recommended 500,000 to 1 million by the end of the fall, to stop the second wave of the virus. The actual number of tests has risen to about 70,000 a day, according to the latest tech council report and state data, but many are happening in higher education settings. Remove college campuses from the equation, and the number is closer to 45,000 a day — a tiny fraction of the nearly 7 million people who live in the state.

“We’re actually testing very few people in the general population,” Pagliuca said. “It’s far short of the levels being recommended to stop the spread.”

The second wave of the virus has indeed begun, and many experts say it is happening at a faster clip with broader geographic reach than they initially envisioned. But “proactive surveillance testing” could be critical to get this wave under control, Pagliuca said.

Thermo Fisher Scientific chief executive Marc Casper said part of the problem is a lack of a nationwide strategy, or even a local one, to use COVID-19 testing to control the disease — outside of colleges and universities. The labs across the country could process as many as 40 million PCR tests (the highly accurate tests for the virus’ genetic material) per week, while only about 10 million tests a week are actually being conducted, he said.

Casper said his company, a giant diagnostics maker based in Waltham, could produce a similar number of tests, around 10 million, in the US right now given its current manufacturing capacity.

“We’re probably selling at half that rate,” Casper said. “Half of the capacity from our company just isn’t being used. The demand isn’t matching up with the supply. If you went to an aggressive strategy … you would have some bumps in the road in matching supply and demand, but they would get sorted out.”

National Basketball Association executive David Weiss said daily PCR testing was instrumental to the success of the 2020 NBA playoffs, held in a quarantine-style “bubble” in Orlando. Players weren’t the only ones tested. So were the hotel workers and bus drivers and everyone else who came in contact with the players. Not one player is believed to have caught COVID-19 during the time they played in the bubble.

“Testing was critical for that,” Weiss said. “It allowed us to identify dozens of people who would have been coming in … and [remove] them from that group.”

The panelists suggested that antigen tests — less expensive but also less reliable than PCR tests — be made widely available so people could monitor whether it’s likely they are infected. Antigen tests would be particularly useful for surveillance purposes, to quarantine suspected cases and then recheck with PCR tests, Pagliuca said. The tech council report quotes Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the White House’s COVID-19 response, as saying national testing needs to be increased by ten times the current amount to test symptomatic and asymptomatic people.

Hochberg said that even as COVID-19 vaccines arrive on the scene, the need for testing will not go away, particularly as more people return to their offices after many months of working from home. And the tech council noted that it could take six to 12 months for vaccines to be successfully distributed. By that point, the council said in its report, the virus could cause significant further economic damage.

“There’s a danger that we stop testing when we should be accelerating testing,” Hochberg said.
It’s not just about fighting this virus, Pagliuca said. It’s also about building a testing and contact-tracing infrastructure that can quickly respond to the next pandemic.

“There is capacity out there for tests,” Pagliuca said. “There are ways to change our regime. We need to push as hard as we can to get those programs into place.”

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