It’s “truly a sad thing” that the United States has still not organized coronavirus testing to make it more available and to hasten the time it takes to get results, Microsoft co-founder and global health philanthropist Bill Gates said Tuesday.
Some countries were able to bring their coronavirus outbreaks under control through effective lockdowns, he said at The Wall Street Journal CEO Summit. Gates acknowledged that such shutdowns “would be hard to execute in most countries,” but added that others were able to deploy testing to help bring the outbreak under control.
“Other countries did very good testing early on. They activated the commercial sector,” he said. “The U.S., to this day, has that you don’t get quick test results. It’s truly a sad thing that we haven’t organized testing.”
While the average turnaround time has greatly improved across the U.S. from earlier in the outbreak, according to federal officials, Gates has consistently criticized commercial laboratories and the U.S. government for not improving processing time even more. Many public health specialists say the value of a test decreases the longer it takes to return results to the potentially infectious individual.
Adm. Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary at HHS who leads the U.S. testing effort, has stressed that testing alone is not a public health intervention that can bring the outbreak under control. But advocates of more widespread and rapid testing say the availability of quick tests would encourage people to isolate if they test positive, thus cutting off chains of transmission. In lieu of rapid testing, potentially infectious people unknowingly spread the virus.
Gates said that investing in more and rapid testing is a good way to keep the virus in check without causing the economic calamity of so-called lockdowns.
“The U.S. never did a lockdown. And China proved that if you do an effective lockdown, you can drive disease to zero,” he said. “It was extreme. It’d be hard to execute in most countries, but they got to zero.”
China, which is where the virus emerged in December, has reported a total of 90,660 cases, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The country didn’t have more than a few dozen confirmed new cases per day in September, Johns Hopkins data shows.
The U.S., on the other hand, continues to report more than 40,000 new cases per day, according to Johns Hopkins data. Gates said scientists know more about the virus now than they did in March and society could bring the outbreak under control without a full lockdown by targeting risky environments like bars, restaurants and parties.
“People are so tired of being restricted,” he said. “And the clarity of leadership about, ‘hey, this saves lives,’ has been particularly weak in the U.S. and a few other countries. Even what we do know about things that we shouldn’t be doing, particularly as the fall is going to drive the numbers up quite a bit, we’re not able to execute on that.”
Gates added that South Korea and Australia are just a couple of countries that mounted a strong response to the virus and brought their outbreaks under control. He said these and other countries had experience responding to the SARS outbreak in 2002 and thus were better prepared to handle a pandemic.
“Because this is an exponential event, a little bit of intelligence early on, makes a huge difference,” he said. “I do think this time we’ll learn and we’ll have innovations so the next time this happens, we’ll do better, but we’re still dealing with the mistakes of February and March.”