Letters to the Editor: Going warp speed on COVID testing can do more harm than good

An Abbott Laboratories BinaxNOW test kid for COVID-19.
Abbott Laboratories’ BinaxNOW rapid COVID-19 nasal swab test has been authorized for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
(Abbott Laboratories / Associated Press)

To the editor: Proposals for ramping up COVID-19 antigen testing to help slow the pandemic before a vaccine is widely available should address three issues. (“U.S. should go warp speed on testing too,” editorial, Oct. 25)

First, testing is adjunctive and adds only marginal safety to masking and social distancing. Alone, testing does not stop the coronavirus — just ask the White House or any pro sports team that underwent daily tests but still experienced outbreaks.

Second, our testing deficit is not due to low supply, but rather a supply-demand mismatch. We can address that imbalance with increased supply, but the safest and most effective strategy focuses on decreasing demand — and we can decrease demand for tests by practicing social distancing and wearing masks.


Third, COVID-19 antigen tests do not work well, and they are correspondingly not approved for use in asymptomatic individuals. The BinaxNOW antigen test you cite in your editorial is at least 100,000 times less sensitive than a gold-standard PCR test.

Many people with early or asymptomatic COVID-19 will receive false-negative antigen results, and most positive antigen results in asymptomatic individuals are wrong as well. Inaccurate clinical laboratory tests can hurt more people than they help.

Geoffrey Baird, M.D., Seattle

The writer chairs the department of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.


To the editor: At this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, mass testing will not resolve our predicament. Your editorial endorses a fool’s errand.

Adding more positive tests to contact trace accomplishes nothing, as the current system is overwhelmed and ineffective. Without adequate supportive services, contacts are unlikely to cooperate with instructions to quarantine.


Transmission will persist, and the only beneficiaries will be the companies that manufacture the tests.

The immediate and medium-term solutions are socio-political, not technological. Put politics aside and accept and promote that limiting the number and duration of personal interactions, maintaining distance from others, and wearing face masks will reduce transmission far better than any warp-speed testing program.

Mark Tracy, MD, Carlsbad


To the editor: I agree that to beat COVID-19 and safely open businesses and schools we need to blanket the country in testing. We also need better contact tracing and a smartphone app that notifies us when we are near an infected person.

To do all of this, we need constant, truthful communication from our government. Because our current president cannot and will not do this, unfortunately we must wait for a president who will.

If Joe Biden is elected, lives will be saved and our economy will be strengthened. If he is not, many people will die before a successful vaccine can be administered throughout the country.


Barbara Snider, Huntington Beach