The chief executive of one of the largest diagnostic companies has called on governments to set clear testing guidelines for schools, employers and travel companies so they can be ready for a return to normal life.
Thomas Polen, managing director of BD, said there had been a lot of talk about how to deploy rapid tests from airports to stages but companies were holding back from making big test orders until they knew what the rules were.
He said the world was at a “transition point” in testing as testing for symptomatic patients shrinks but orders for testing in “non-traditional” settings have not yet increased. He said these organizations needed to know how often to test and how they would be expected to report the data.
“Governments have an important role to play in giving clear direction in terms of returning to sport, or for airlines, and in helping schools,” he told the Financial Times.
He added that there were “big variations” in how governments around the world viewed testing, with countries like the Netherlands and Canada taking the more aggressive approach.
BD dramatically increased production of many essential items during the pandemic, from tests to syringes used for vaccines.
The New Jersey-based company predicts it will perform more than 100 million Covid-19 tests this year. It has already ramped up the manufacturing of tests – including both molecular tests conducted in the laboratory and rapid tests – from 10m between July and September 2020 to reach 12 million per month in March.
BD rapid tests are already being used by sports teams to diagnose their players, travelers crossing borders in some Asian countries, universities and manufacturing plants.
Even if vaccination begins to control the spread of Covid-19, testing may be needed for more risky activities such as large events or travel. British government officials suggested this evidence of a negative Covid test could be used as an alternative to a vaccine passport, amid fears people may resist vaccination.
Yet rapid tests have been controversial, as some scientists fear showing too many false negatives, telling people they aren’t infected when they are. Polen said if PCR tests find more positive cases, BD’s rapid tests can be used to determine who is infectious.
“If your goal is not clinical diagnosis but understanding, are the people who move into this building contagious? . . . Rapid tests are a great tool, ”he said.
However, Jon Deeks, professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, believes a better strategy might be to rely on symptomatic testing and then contact tracing around localized outbreaks.
“If the disease level is really low and the benefits of mass testing are getting smaller and smaller. . . the costs and harms become disproportionate to the benefits, ”he said.
“We will effectively exclude people from school and cause economic damage to families by forcing them to isolate themselves.”