Could the United States quickly test every man, woman, and child in the country for the coronavirus? And if this is possible, why should we do it?
Commenting on my ideas on this topic, Newsmax columnist Milt Thomas has suggested that I’m a “misfit” who lives in “Fantasy Land.” But let’s look at the facts.
Could we do testing on this scale? Most countries in the world, lacking both the biotech expertise and the manufacturing capability, could not. But we are leaders in biotech, and we have a $2 trillion per year manufacturing sector, exceeded in capacity only by China’s.
Imagine that President Donald Trump surprises us a few days from now with a speech that begins, “The coronavirus is destroying our great country, and I’m not going to allow that.” Then he announces that he is directing our biotech companies to produce a cheap, disposable, self-test for the coronavirus that is at least 95% accurate (think: those home pregnancy tests that you see in the dollar stores) – and that he wants prototypes on his desk in three days.
As it happens, I know of exactly such a test that is on the fast track for review by the FDA – and that’s without a Trump mandate. With such a mandate – let’s call them virometers – will likely be produced in days. If the president sweetens the deal by offering a billion dollar reward for the best device (think: X-Prize), he probably will find some of those prototypes on his desk the next morning.
The test I know about, produced in small quantities, will cost $20. Manufactured by the hundreds of millions, the per-unit cost will drop to well under a dollar. Can we produce hundreds of millions of virometers in a few weeks? Of course we can, especially if the president invokes his powers under the Defense Production Act.
How quickly could such devices be distributed to everyone in the country (think: the U.S. census)? With a joint effort by the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, and FedEx, virometers will be in the hands of more than 99 percent of the U.S. population within a week’s time.
Now we get to the good part. Why will virtually everyone in America – even undocumented immigrants and the homeless – test themselves for the coronavirus?
First, because people hate uncertainty – not knowing whether they or their children are carrying a potentially deadly virus.
It’s the uncertainty that got everyone thinking that everyone around them is infected, even though, at present, it’s likely that more than 300 million of us are not carriers. I know that I and everyone in my family will shove those little test devices up our noses within seconds of when they arrive at our home. Wouldn’t you?
Second, for a reason I’ll get to in a minute, Trump, every member of Congress (on both sides of the aisle), every governor, every mayor, and hundreds of celebrity influencers (led, of course, by Kanye West and Kim Kardashian) will be urging the whole country to self-test – not to mention our friends, neighbors, and co-workers. The positive messaging and social pressure to self-test will be unrelenting.
Third – and this is the sweet spot – people will want to self-test because doing so will quickly tell us who is carrying the virus and who is not, at which point the president and pretty much everyone else with a mouth will urge the carriers to self-isolate. When they do, we will immediately and safely be able to reopen the entire economy – the theaters, bars, restaurants, stadiums, schools, you name it.
People are sick (sometimes literally) of being imprisoned in their homes and disillusioned by the failing economy. If people are reminded multiple times a day that self-testing and self-isolating will free them from their prison cells and restart the economy, compliance with this program might well approach 100 percent. Normally full compliance with a mandate like this would be impossible to achieve, but these are not normal times.
Bear in mind that I’m not talking about opening the economy in fits and starts over an excruciating 18-month period; I’m talking about safely reopening the entire economy the day after the carriers self-isolate.
Think about it: It’s not the elderly who should self-isolate, and it’s certainly not the entire population; it’s the carriers, because when the carriers self-isolate, transmission of the virus stops.
Even more remarkable, the carriers will need to self-isolate for only two or three weeks, because during those weeks, their immune systems will destroy the virus. (And in a few cases, unfortunately, the virus will die when it kills its host.)
In other words, by isolating the carriers, we will quickly end the pandemic – perhaps even eliminating the need for a vaccine.
To boost compliance, the president could offer a cash reward for carriers who self-isolate, and fines or other penalties could be levied for noncompliance.
A few people will still screw up, of course. But with hundreds of thousands of those little virometers in barrels outside theaters, schools, and stadiums, the recalcitrant few will still be isolated from the healthy population. Why? Because if they want in, they will have to self-test, and if they test positive, they will be sent home or into quarantine.
A few days after I published my full proposal for universal testing on March 25, Glenn Beck called it a “genius idea” and urged the president to consider it. Just a few days ago, when I described the plan to Tucker Carlson on his show on Fox News, he seemed stunned at first and then said, “That's such a sensible solution.... Why has it not occurred to anyone?”
Just yesterday, a judge in Texas, objecting to the governor’s plan to reopen that state’s economy while the virus was still spreading, said the state must not reopen until we have “universal, rapid testing so everybody knows who's healthy and who's not. That's the only way we get back to work."
And just a week ago, distinguished panelists studying the coronavirus for The Heritage Foundation issued recommendations about how we should proceed. Their first recommendation? Test everyone.
I’m not a conservative, and I supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, but I have to admit that Donald Trump is exactly the right man for this job. His base includes millions of Americans who are skeptical about big government, and those are folks who might object when politicians tell them to self-test and self-isolate. But when Trump asks them to do it and points out the obvious benefits to all of America, they almost certainly will get on board.
And when, under Trump’s leadership, America unites to kill the virus, he will go down in history as a great hero. If the whole world follows his lead, which it almost certainly will do, his legacy will be assured.
Robert Epstein (@DrREpstein) is senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, in Vista, California. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He is the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today and the author of 15 books.
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