Skip to Content
Biotechnology and health

The US needs to do 20 million tests a day to reopen safely, according to a new plan

April 20, 2020
A man and woman walks past the entrance of Central Park in New York, on Sunday, April 19, 2020.
A man and woman walks past the entrance of Central Park in New York, on Sunday, April 19, 2020.AP

The news: A group of experts has produced a plan for the US to reopen its economy safely this summer. However, it’s contingent on doing at least 20 million tests every day, scaling up contact tracing, and ensuring that those who need to isolate can be properly supported.

The report, produced by 45 cross-disciplinary experts assembled by Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, says we need to be doing 5 million tests a day by early June in order to start reopening the country, increasing to 20 million by midsummer to fully end the shutdown. From the start, the World Health Organization has said the only way to beat the virus is to “test, test, test.” That message seems to finally be getting through.

How we get there: The level of testing needed depends on our being able to effectively trace the contacts of those infected with coronavirus, warn those people they’ve been exposed, test them, and isolate everyone who tests positive, the report says. We’d need to provide job protection and support for those who have to isolate, including food deliveries and care packages. That involves hiring an army of contact tracers—at least another 100,000 people.

It also requires us to massively scale up testing by incentivizing the private sector to create new solutions at speed, the authors say. This could be coordinated by a Pandemic Testing Board set up by the federal government and given the task of securing the needed testing supplies and infrastructure. This program would be expensive: $50 to 300 billion over two years. However, the report authors say, it is dwarfed by the economic cost of continued collective quarantine: $100 to 350 billion every month.

The benefits of this approach: Implementing a lockdown does not “beat” the virus—effectively it just hits pause on its spread until we’re able to come up with a way to treat it or reduce the number of cases to the point where they’re traceable. This plan would avoid the need for endless cycles of opening up then shutting down the economy until we find a vaccine.

Contingent on support: Regardless of its merits, this plan will only succeed with backing from businesses and politicians. Landing an endorsement from a household-name politician or a big company—perhaps one of the tech or retail giants—would help push it closer to reality. Crucially, it cannot become a reality unless it receives enough funding—and fast. Perhaps the awful human toll will help to focus minds: the US has 759,786 confirmed covid-19 cases as of this morning, and 40,683 people have died.

Deep Dive

Biotechnology and health

Scientists are finding signals of long covid in blood. They could lead to new treatments.

Faults in a certain part of the immune system might be at the root of some long covid cases, new research suggests.

This baby with a head camera helped teach an AI how kids learn language

A neural network trained on the experiences of a single young child managed to learn one of the core components of language: how to match words to the objects they represent.

The first gene-editing treatment: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Sickle-cell disease is the first illness to be beaten by CRISPR, but the new treatment comes with an expected price tag of $2 to $3 million.

Weight-loss drugs: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Weight-loss drugs like Wegovy and Mounjaro are wildly popular and effective, but their long-term health impacts are still unknown.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.