The US lag in coronavirus testing is “a failing”, a top federal health official has said.
Public health experts have warned they do not have a good understanding of how widely the virus has spread.
The effort initially was hobbled by delays in getting testing kits out to public health labs but the problems have continued, leading scientists to conclude the virus has already spread far wider than government officials are reporting.
US health officials, for example, promised nearly a month ago to tap into a national network of labs that monitor for flu. That system is only just getting started.
On Thursday, Dr Anthony Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health, agreed that the US needs to improve testing.
“The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” he said. “That is a failing. It is a failing, let’s admit it.”
Large-scale testing is a critical part of tracking the spread of infectious diseases and allocating resources for treatment. The lack of comprehensive figures means US health providers could quickly be overwhelmed by undetected cases.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was reporting about 1,260 US illnesses — a number that trailed independent researchers, who are adding reports from individual states more quickly.
But some experts believe any number based on test results of individual patients is a dramatic undercount. Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles this week estimated that the true count of infections was close to 9,000 — about two weeks ago.
“I expect there are more infected individuals now,” said one of the researchers, Dr Jonathan Braun. “This means that the level of disease in the US is much greater than has been reported by actual testing.”
The problem, these experts say, is that the US is not testing enough people.
There are no official numbers from the federal government on the country’s overall testing capacity. One of the only comprehensive estimates comes from Dr Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner who is now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
As of Thursday, his group estimated US labs could process results for more than 20,000 patients per day.
The figure is based on a combination of publicly reported information and historical estimates from government, private and academic labs. It reflects the total number of patient results that could be processed in a day, not the current number being run.
Whatever the actual number, the US effort is trailing other nations.
South Korea, a country one-sixth the size of the US in terms of population, is reportedly testing 15,000 people per day.
CDC director Dr Robert Redfield noted that officials there are using automated, high-volume testing systems capable of processing thousands of samples at a time.
In contrast, the equipment used by most US state and local labs requires technicians to manually process each sample in small batches, sometimes 100 or fewer per day.