‘Last Week Tonight’: John Oliver Talks Need To Scale Up Coronavirus Testing And How The U.S. Fell Behind
After taking a week break Last Week Tonight with John Oliver returned and there was a lot to address. Actually, it was all about coronavirus because that is the only thing really making headlines these days.
From Oliver’s “Great White Void”, he touched on Alex Jones talking about eating his neighbors due to the pandemic before jumping into the latest news on COVID-19.
He started by talking about how Jared Kushner has declared victory over the virus and said that the country is ready to get “really rockin’ again”.
Oliver begs to differ as he described Kushner as a middle-aged dad desperately trying to connect with his teenage son. He points out how badly we are in need of testing in order to open society — as nearly every public health official is pointing out.
“There’s almost nothing more important than widespread effective testing,” he said. It is important in order for us to track and contain the spread — and testing is alarmingly scarce despite what Donald Trump says.
Many are calling the lack of testing “the original sin” of American pandemic failure. “Had testing caught the cases in this country early we could’ve managed the virus through contact tracing and targeted quarantine but that did not happen so the virus spread widely forcing us to use the blunt instrument of making everyone stay at home,” said Oliver.
He adds that lack of testing goes to the “very heart of how we got into this situation” and “the fact is that broad testing is the only safe way out.”
Oliver goes on to give us some startling figures. A good day for testing for the country, at a low estimate, is 500,000 a day. A good target is 35 million a day. The U.S. is currently at about 200,000 a day.
It is here where Oliver asks the question: “What the fuck happened?” He then unpacks diagnostic tests and antibody tests.
“Diagnostic tests are key especially at the beginning of an outbreak, but unfortunately the U.S. committed some critical errors early on,” Oliver explains. “In mid-January, the World Health Organization recommended a diagnostic testing protocol but rather than follow it, the CDC decided to develop it’s own more complicated test.”
This wasn’t a bad idea, but the CDC decided to manufacture their own testing kits. The tests didn’t work properly due to chemical contamination during manufacturing. That said, the CDC took weeks to develop a workaround to make them usable — which Oliver calls “a huge problem.”
Private sector labs were willing to develop their own tests, but they had to jump through too many bureaucratic hoops in order to get it done. In a clip, one lab said that the FDA required them to send a hard copy, CD or thumb drive of paperwork in order to develop the test when it could have been sent electronically. This would cause a major slowdown.
Even though the requirement was quickly lifted, there were many other challenges that slowed things down. It wasn’t until the end of February that the FDA allowed labs to use their own tests without waiting for authorization but by that time a whole month had gone by and the U.S. had only tested 472 people even as the virus was spreading undetected in major cities. At the same time, South Korea was also going through the start of the outbreak and they had administered 55,000 tests. Alex Azar, United States Secretary of Health and Human Services, didnt seem too concerned with the disparity.
Oliver points out that there was an “arrogant belief” that coronavirus would never come to America. “We are currently living in the consequences because of those failures,” he said.
In addition, lab equipment, swabs and chemical reagents to administer the tests have been hard to come by. For months, many states were seeing a shortage of swabs and the federal government was not stepping in.
“To do proper testing, you need proper equipment,” said Oliver. In response, Trump said these shortages didn’t exist and insisted that governors will be “finding them very soon” as if it were a scavenger hunt.
Trump eventually invoked the Defense Production Act to ramp up supplies but he did it late. There were many mistakes with diagnostic tests in the U.S. and we were wasting valuable time fixing them. Tests were heavily rationed and given to people who met narrow criteria. Even so, Kushner said this week in his victory lap that “We did this quickly” and that it was extraordinary.
“Taking months to do what other countries did in weeks is not extraordinary,” Oliver said.
He then went into anti-body tests, which determines if you have the anti-bodies to fight coronavirus. There is a good chance that if you have them, you are immune — but we still don’t know that yet because as Oliver points out, “COVID-19 is so brand new, we’re still not sure exactly what antibody levels make you hypothetically immune, how strong that immunity would be and how long it might even last.”
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that antibodies may prevent you from re-infection, but that hasn’t been proven for this virus.”
The antibody test isn’t exactly accurate either. While the FDA slowed things down for diagnostic tests, they overcorrected when it came to antibody tests and gave a greenlight to make tests with no oversight. Oliver said there are 150-plus on the market and none are FDA approved and only 10 are FDA authorized.
That said, Oliver goes back to testing — and it is not as readily available no matter how much he lies about it. He has continued to do so and said last week that there is enough testing sufficient enough to open the country. and according to experts, it isn’t.
“We need to scale up tests massively and right away,” said Oliver. “If we want to return to the world that we are used — testing is how we get there. That is message that should unite everyone in this country.”
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