Scientists around the world were waiting at their computers in early January when China released the coronavirus genetic code, the blueprint for creating tests and vaccines.
“Someone said we’re testing too many people and this is why we have such a huge number. That is not true,” Giovanni Rezza, director of the department of infectious diseases at the Italian National Institute of Health.
Under pressure, the regional governments began testing only patients who exhibited symptoms. Politicians and scientists continue to debate those protocols, Dr. Rezza said. Still, the country has managed to test more than 182,000 people.
Britain was one of the first to develop coronavirus diagnostic kits but made a decision not to test widely. The government’s strategy initially focused on slowing the contagion rather than stopping it. The government, though, severely underestimated the potential scope of the epidemic, according to a study published on Monday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government recently reversed its strategy and decided to widen testing. Mr. Johnson told Parliament on Wednesday that his government will have the ability to conduct 25,000 tests a day.
But raw numbers ignore the effect of timing. South Korea deployed its tests early and alongside other approaches, including some that European populations might resist. A government app monitored people to ensure they remained quarantined. Police officers used surveillance camera footage, phone data and credit card records to recreate the movements of new patients and identify potential contacts.
Kim Gang-lip, a South Korean vice health minister, said the contagiousness of the disease and its rapid spread demanded a new approach. “Such characteristics of the virus render the traditional response, which emphasizes lockdown and isolation, ineffective,” he said.
A New Testing Reality
Lockdown and isolation are a reality today for tens of millions of people.
Italy is at a standstill. Europe has all but shut its borders. President Emmanuel Macron of France told people to stay at home for 15 days and ordered the army to transport the sick to hospitals. Mr. Trump recommended against all but the smallest gatherings.
With no treatment for the disease, many countries are telling sick people to stay home unless they become seriously ill. Hospitals cannot afford to be overwhelmed by nervous people asking for tests.
But patients who self-quarantine likely won’t ever be tested, making it difficult to know the true scope of the disease. And as the disease spreads, the practicality of testing declines, as does its value.
“Testing of contacts, I believe, will be totally out of control very soon,” said Manfred Green, an epidemiologist with the University of Haifa in Israel.
Australian officials say they, too, worry about wasting tests on the merely worried. They recently adjusted testing protocols, but remain aggressive. Anyone who has recently been out of the country and so much as spikes a fever will likely be tested. “We are still in the containment phase,” said Dr. Kok. “We’re testing really widely.”