Thursday, October 22, 2020
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Test, test and test again

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GOVERNMENTS around the world have decided to throw trillions at improving the economy but, astonishingly, only a small portion of that is on health measures, despite pleas for weeks from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ‘test, test, test’. 

With the exception of two or three countries in Asia, most governments to date have decided to spend very little on testing, putting up smokescreens about its effectiveness and cost. The UK government is buying chunks of airlines, for heaven’s sake, instead of spending to follow WHO advice, though it has now made a U-turn and plans to raise the number of tests to a still-insufficient 25,000 a day within a month. 

Priorities are still skewed. If a pipe is leaking water, you fix the leak; you don’t repaint, buy new carpeting and a dehumidifier. The analogy holds for the coronavirus crisis. Halt the virus and the economy will improve. If you don’t halt the virus, the economy will continue to suffer. The only proven way to halt the virus is through massive testing and appropriate follow-ups.

A surprising programme in a small village in virus-devastated Italy has proved the point. The following is taken from an article in the CBC News website. The Guardian reported the same story, that a scientist on the front line of Italy’s fight against the Covid-19 outbreak is issuing a plea to relatively unaffected countries such as Canada: Test everyone possible, even those not showing symptoms.

‘Test the neighbourhood, test the relatives, test the friends, and isolate all positive individuals,’ said Andrea Crisanti, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London who is working on the ground in Italy. ‘If you do it now, you will stop the disease.’

While on sabbatical at the University of Padua, Crisanti has been participating in a mass testing experiment for Covid-19 infections in Vo, a town of roughly 3,400 people west of Venice.

Though Italy’s overall death toll is in the thousands and climbing, Crisanti said Vo has effectively stopped its local outbreak by testing and retesting every single resident, regardless of whether they showed any symptoms. 

The town had its first confirmed case on February 21, he said. The initial round of testing that month showed 3 per cent of the population had been infected. Every one of those residents was then put under isolation at home and not allowed any contact with others. Ten days later the entire town was retested, at which point the rate of infection had dropped to 0.3 per cent, marking a 90 per cent decrease.

‘What we learned is that 25 per cent had influenza-like symptoms, and 75 per cent were completely asymptomatic,’ Crisanti said. ‘They were completely unaware.’

He said that given the high number of people who didn’t show symptoms, the takeaway for other countries is to test widely, catch all possible cases early, and isolate them to prevent the virus from spreading like wildfire through a community.

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Bob McMillan
Bob McMillan is a retired journalist and editor now living in Canada

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