US labs buckle under virus testing surge as global cases top 15 million

US labs buckle under virus testing surge as global cases top 15 million

Lag in test processing keeps workers off jobs, hampers contact tracing; Australia, Hong Kong face record outbreaks as more signs emerge virus springs back when lockdowns lifted

People wait to take a coronavirus test at a mobile testing site in Los Angeles, California, July 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
People wait to take a coronavirus test at a mobile testing site in Los Angeles, California, July 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Laboratories across the US are buckling under a surge of coronavirus tests, creating long processing delays that experts say are undercutting the pandemic response.

With the US tally of confirmed infections at nearly 4 million Wednesday and new cases surging, the bottlenecks are creating problems for workers kept off the job while awaiting results, nursing homes struggling to keep the virus out and for the labs themselves as they deal with a crushing workload.

The US leads the world in cases as well as deaths with over 142,000 fatalities.

Some labs are taking weeks to return COVID-19 results, exacerbating fears that people without symptoms could be spreading the virus if they don’t isolate while they wait.

“There’s been this obsession with, ‘How many tests are we doing per day?’” said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The question is how many tests are being done with results coming back within a day, where the individual tested is promptly isolated and their contacts are promptly warned.”

Guidelines issued by the CDC recommend that states lifting virus restrictions have a testing turnaround time of under four days. The agency recently issued new recommendations against retesting most COVID-19 patients to confirm they have recovered.

Test results that come back after two or three days are nearly worthless, many health experts say, because by then the window for tracing the person’s contacts to prevent additional infections has essentially closed.

The US is testing over 700,000 people per day, up from less than 100,000 in March.


A medical laboratory scientist processes COVID-19 tests at the University of Washington Medicine Virology Lab in Seattle, Washington, July 20, 2020. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times via AP, Pool)

Trump administration officials point out that roughly half of US tests are performed on rapid systems that give results in about 15 minutes or in hospitals, which typically process tests in about 24 hours. But last month, that still left some 9 million tests going through laboratories, which have been plagued by limited chemicals, machines and kits to develop COVID-19 tests.

There is no scientific consensus on the rate of testing needed to control the virus in the US, but experts have recommended for months that the US test at least 1 million to 3 million people daily.

The testing lags in the US come as the number of people confirmed to be infected worldwide passed a staggering 15 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Globally, signs are emerging that the virus quickly springs back when lockdown measures are lifted.

Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong and Tokyo had all used restrictive measures to successfully beat outbreaks earlier in the pandemic, but all are now facing an upsurge in cases.

Australia and Hong Kong set new daily records for confirmed cases on Wednesday and Tokyo’s governor urged residents to stay at home during a forthcoming holiday as cases climb.

People wearing face masks to protect against the new coronavirus walk along a street in Hong Kong, July 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Belgian officials said people must stick to social-distancing guidelines to halt a “snowball effect before it provokes a new avalanche.”

However, one of the more controversial measures taken by any government — South Africa’s decision to ban the sale of alcohol and enforce a curfew — continued to cause anguish.

“What the government has put in place has been knee-capping,” restaurateur Sean Barber said during a protest in Johannesburg. “It’s decimating our industry.”

The crisis has left tens of millions unemployed around the world and crippled global commerce, prompting the European Union to agree to an unprecedented 750 billion euro ($858 billion) aid package for the hardest-hit member countries earlier this week.

But the airline industry continues to struggle under the weight of travel restrictions and reluctance among potential passengers to fly.

Irish carrier Ryanair said on Wednesday it would shut its base near the German business hub Frankfurt after pilots refused to take a pay cut.

The firm, which is looking to shed 3,000 staff in total, said the pilot’s union had “voted for job cuts and base closures when they could have preserved all jobs.”

A health worker taking a swab test of a woman is seen through the window of a parked car in Mumbai, India, July 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

The production of a vaccine is now key to ensuring a return to something close to normality for businesses and the general public.

More than 200 candidate drugs are being developed with 23 having progressed to clinical trials.

The US government has agreed to pay almost $2 billion for 100 million doses of a potential vaccine being developed by German firm BioNTech and US giant Pfizer.

Another leading candidate, developed in part by pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, registered promising results from clinical trials this week.

But the firm’s chief said on Tuesday a global rollout was not imminent.

“We hope to be able to produce a vaccine by the end of the year… perhaps a little earlier if all goes well,” said Pascal Soriot.

With the sporting world just about getting back on its feet, Olympic officials conceded on Wednesday that their hopes of holding the Tokyo 2020 Games next year rested on a vaccine.

“If things continue as they are now, we couldn’t” hold the Games, said local organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori.

While global efforts to prevent new infections are the principal concern of policymakers, the extent and severity of the disease in countries with struggling health systems has becoming clearer in recent days.

India passed the one-million infections milestone last week and is now behind only the US and Brazil, but new data on Wednesday suggested a vast underestimate.

A study showed almost a quarter of the population in New Delhi had contracted the virus, equating to roughly five million infections in the capital city, while officials have registered just 125,000 cases.

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