On a sunny Monday in mid-September, scientist Michael Mina sits down at his desk at Harvard for the first time since the pandemic began. It’s been so long that, through the window behind him, an entire gleaming 11-story building has sprung up. A neglected office plant is brown and withering, and a stack of scientific journals nearby date to February and March 2020.
The 37-year-old epidemiologist, immunologist, and physician says it didn’t have to be this way: Workplaces, schools, event spaces, and more that have been desolate for better than a year could have stayed open—and safely—with a technology that’s been here all along. Mina has long been a tireless champion of inexpensive, do-it-yourself SARS-CoV-2 antigen tests that can return a positive or negative result in about 15 minutes, arguing for their wider deployment in op-ed articles, on Twitter, and in conversations with health authorities.
The idea is that when used widely and frequently, the detectors, similar to a home pregnancy test, could stop outbreaks before they begin. Countries such as Germany and the U.K. have invested heavily in the tests, making them available cheaply or even free. Others, including the U.S., have stuck with a more sensitive laboratory test that often must be administered by trained personnel and can take days to return results, depending on the lab’s processing capacity.
“I’ve just been banging the drum about this really simple tool that, frankly, could have prevented the outbreaks of last winter,” says Mina. “It could have—especially when we had no vaccines—saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Rapid testing may finally be having its moment. Even in countries with plenty of vaccine supply, policymakers are coming to the realization that shots alone might not be enough to stop the virus, especially its more infectious delta variant. President Joe Biden said on Sept. 9 that he would spend $2 billion on 280 million rapid tests, and his administration announced an additional $1 billion purchase this month—part of a group of measures that officials say should quadruple the number available for home use by December. It’s not enough, but it’s a start, Mina says.
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