Rockefeller plan would screen millions for Covid-19

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Dr. Natalia Echeverri, (R) uses a swab to gather a sample from the nose of Sammy Carpenter, who said he is homeless, to test him for COVID-19 on April 17, 2020 in Miami, Florida.

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An ambitious new plan to radically increase the number of coronavirus tests in the United States would see up to 30 million people screened each week and cost up to $100 billion to implement, a private foundation said Tuesday.

But that pricey effort for what one expert called “the largest public health testing in history” is necessary to stem the $300 billion to $400 billion in American economic losses each month as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Rockefeller Foundation argues.

The sooner that coronavirus tests become much more widely available, the foundation said, the quicker the U.S. economy can start getting back to normal.

“We do have the capacity to do that, and we’ve got the resources to do that” effort, said Dr. Michael Pellini, managing partner of Section 32 and board member of the Personalized Medicine Coalition, who contributed to the foundation’s new plan.

“Yes, it’s ambitious, but at this point we’ve got to do it,” Pellini said. “We have to fix testing in this country to enable our workforce to be deployed once again.”

The plan comes amid calls by numerous experts and by company CEOs to boost coronavirus testing to make sure businesses and social events can reopen safely without sparking second and third waves of virus outbreaks.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in a note to shareholders last week, wrote: Regular testing on a global scale, across all industries, would both help keep people safe and help get the economy back up and running.”

Rockefeller Foundation President Dr. Rajiv Shah said: “We envision an America where everyone who needs a test can get one.”

Rajiv Shah, president of The Rockefeller Foundation

Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images

“The Rockefeller Foundation believes that testing access is critical to scaling up our lives and economy,” Shah said during a conference call with reporters Monday, when the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases reached more than 766,600, and the number of related fatalities approached 41,000.

He called the up-to-$100 billion cost of the effort “a modest investment” given the amount of monthly economic losses to the nation, as well as the societal costs related to the outbreak, which could end up being increased rates of suicides, alcoholism and domestic violence.

While the goal of the testing action plan is to build a state-led national program, the foundation says that funding for it likely can come from federal funds through agencies or grants. 

The foundation itself is investing $15 million to help kick off the effort, which includes supporting cities that are among the first to adopt the plan’s recommendations.

The Rockefeller Foundation, which is a major philanthropic donor for efforts related to health, science and other areas, told CNBC last week that it had been in contact with the Trump administration, national groups of governors and mayors, and leading American corporations as it prepared the recommendations.

The foundation’s plan lays out a strategy for tripling, within the next eight weeks, the existing 1 million coronavirus test per week now being done by maximizing efficiencies in existing testing capacity.

After that, the foundation calls for multiplying those 3 million tests per week by at least 10 times to get to at least 30 million tests each week within the next six months.

Reaching that level will entail, among other things, removing regulatory barriers to approval for new point-of-care and home test kits, and ensuring payments for labs performing the tests.

The Rockefeller plan says that more testing must be done to accurately capture the level of Covid-19 infections in the U.S.

“In Taiwan, there have been 132 tests conducted for every confirmed case. In Australia, the number is 62. In the United States, it is five,” an executive summary of the plan notes.

“The unfortunate conclusion from this comparison is that the country’s actual number of infections may be 15- to 20-times higher than the reported number of confirmed cases,” the summary says.

“In short, the United States needs to increase the current level of 1 million tests per week by at least 10-fold and preferably 20-fold to adequately monitor the pandemic.”

The plan notes that “given the commercial uncertainties inherent in this 10-fold increase in production” it is likely the federal government would need to activate the Defense Production Act to compel production of tests.

The plan calls for the creation of an Emergency Network for Covid-19 Testing to coordinate and underwrite the testing market with the use of leverage from public-private credit guarantees and other tools.

The second part of the plan envisions a paid Covid Community Healthcare Corps, comprised of between 100,000 and 300,000 people, to perform the high number of texts and conduct “contact tracing,” or reaching out to individuals who have been around infected people,and testing them as well.

The third part of the plan is a common data and digital platform to support the first two objectives by sharing “real-time analyses of resource allocations, disease tracing results and patient medical records.”

New York University professor Paul Romer, who shared the 2018 Nobel Prize for Economics, said the need for a huge increase in the number of coronavirus tests is driven not only by the need to stanch the bleeding of current economic losses, but to prevent permanent damage to U.S. economic output when the country exits recession.

“Our future capacity to produce” is lower because of the economic cost of the pandemic “and it deteriorates with each month of delay,” said Romer, who contributed to the Rockefeller Foundation’s plan.

But Romer said the solution to the testing problem lies in the current system, which needs to be reorganized and incentivized financially to produce enough tests.

“We’re really not constrained on the supply side, but we are constrained by what we’re willing to pay,” Romer said.

“We just need to pay people and let them have to option to provide these tests.”

Romer made the analogy of the government saying that there needed to be 300 million soft drinks made one day.

No one would step up to make the drinks for free, he suggested, but they would be made if the government agreed to pay for them.

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