Go Figure: COVID-19 Testing
The COVID-19 Coronavirus is now officially a pandemic. Yet, knowledge about the virus is extremely limited. How many people in the world have it? How quickly is the virus spreading? Do certain environments make you more susceptible to infection? All of these basic questions depend on a key metric: population assessment. Without accurate testing, there is no data. Without reliable data, any solutions proposed by public health experts are blind guesses. The data visuals above (and below) compare the rate of testing across multiple, developed countries. Before jumping straight to fatality or recovery rates, I felt it was important to review the number of tests performed. Containment of any virus is directly tied to awareness. Access to rapid, accurate testing also mean quarantine efforts can be more targeted. As South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung recently explained to the BBC, “Testing is central because that leads to early detection.” Adding in the same interview, “We are definitely seeing a… reduction of new coronavirus cases but we’re not being complacent.”
Data sources for the above graphics come from the World Health Organization, The COVID-19 Tracking Project, Ministero Salute, South Korean Ministry of Welfare and Health, DHSC UK, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Kingdom of Bahrain, World Population Review, and Sante Publique France. Information about COVID-19 testing is constantly being updated. Here is a quick breakdown on the testing methods available.
How Fast is a COVID-19 Test?
Access to a COVID-19 test depends on what country you live in. However, once you are able to take a test, results can take anywhere from 3-5 days. South Korea has tested a large population (over 140,000) in record time largely because diagnostic sites (like drive-thru testing options) were setup across the country quickly in February. U.S. cities like Seattle have just recently started to adopt the drive-thru model. The Cleveland Clinic announced the development of a test that provides on-site results in 8 hours; however, having an electronic doctor’s note (and partnering health insurance provider) ahead of the appointment is still required. As more private labs get involved, the hope is for patients to receive results within 24-48 hours. This of course, assumes that medical supplies required for testing and the actual testing kits will remain in stock.
What is Required to take a COVID-19 Test?
A swab. Once you’ve arranged access to the actual test through your healthcare provider, a medical professional will take a swab via your throat or nose cavity. Those swab samples are put in a container and sent for testing. The biggest challenge governments are facing is ensuring enough supplies exist for the testing of patients and the medical professionals administering the test kits. As this U.K. doctor explained, “It just makes no sense to any of us. The WHO has been absolutely clear in its guidelines. It says testing and then contact tracing is absolutely key. Yet, the government is not even testing those of us who are being exposed in the course of our work fighting this on the frontline.”
Are There Enough Test Kits?
No. Regardless of which country you happen to live in, there are not enough test kits being developed or distributed to meet the demand. In the United States, a key destabilizing factor was the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The first U.S. case was reported in January, the same time South Korea was made aware of it’s own first COVID-19 case. Instead of partnering with private labs quickly or setting up testing sites (like South Korea or Singapore), the CDC ended up establishing cautionary guidelines for those who travelled from China and distributed test kits a month later. Many of the initial test kits that were sent out were faulty and not reliable. Until March 2nd, U.S. states were only allowed to send their testing samples to the CDC. Private labs were not involved. Also, the CDC could (and did) refuse assessment of samples if they felt certain patients did not meet official testing criteria. South Korea on the other hand, has been able to test 10,000 people per day (since February) at 79 designated testing sites. Even with this level of government efficiency, the country has not been able to completely meet testing demands for its 51 million residents.
Today, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma announced he would donate medical resources to all African countries. The founder of Alibaba Group is expected to deliver at least 1.1 million testing kits, 6 million masks, and 60,000 protective suits. In addition to Africa, the billionaire has donated 1.8 million masks and other medical supplies to Italy and Spain, as well as another 500,000 testing kits and 1 million masks to the U.S.
Through his foundation and the Alibaba Foundation, Ma has similar plans to help other European countries (pledging a total donation of 2 million medical supplies to the region) and Iran. The next data visual in our COVID-19 series will focus on data highlighting recovery rates, confirmed cases, and the spread of infection.