Updated on November 20, 2020.
Coronavirus infections in the United States are growing exponentially, and lawmakers may soon face an awful choice between another round of shutdowns and the deaths of tens of thousands more Americans.
A small band of scientists insist there is another way. They say that if every American took multiple coronavirus tests a week at home, we’d be able to figure out who is contagious. People who tested positive would stay home for two weeks while the rest of us more or less went about our lives. With masks and social distancing, yes—but also with safer schools and larger funerals.
These rapid tests, these scientists argue, would help Americans survive until a vaccine becomes widely available next summer. A similar testing scheme conducted in Slovakia recently helped cut infections in half, Reuters reported. Other studies have suggested that testing people for symptoms, such as fevers, alone won’t stop the spread of the coronavirus, and that everyone—symptomatic or not—should be tested frequently.
But the easy, cheap, at-home coronavirus tests that would make all of this possible still aren’t available to most Americans.
My colleagues Robinson Meyer and Alexis C. Madrigal wrote about the promise of such testing in August. At the time, the concept had circulated for months. A handful of at-home tests are now for sale in some stores, but they cost more than $100 and take more than a day to return the results. Yesterday, the FDA approved another at-home test, Lucira, that will cost less than $50 and return results within 30 minutes. But it will be available only by prescription, NPR reported, and won’t be widely available until this spring. The types of tests scientists such as the Harvard epidemiologist Michael Mina, an advocate for the idea, are envisioning are extremely cheap—a few bucks a pop—and wouldn’t require a prescription.