ELLSWORTH — Everyone — from struggling small business owners to parents learning the rigors of homeschooling — wants to know when we can get back to work and when the economy can reopen again.
Officials around the country have been reluctant to issue timelines, but there’s one thing that absolutely has to happen before the country can safely reopen, said Edison Liu, president and CEO of the Jackson Laboratory.
“The only way to do it is testing, massive testing,” said Liu in a video interview last week.
“I believe that the optimum situation is that everybody who is going to go back to work should be tested,” said Liu. “You’ve got to test everybody, and you can’t test them just once, you’ve got to test them multiple times. Can you imagine the kind of scale we’re talking about?”
Maine has run roughly 15,000 tests since the disease arrived in the state. The COVID Tracking Project estimates that the country as a whole had conducted 4.16 million tests as of Wednesday morning.
But that’s likely far short of what’s needed, said researchers at Harvard University in “Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience,” which was released this week. In order to fully re-mobilize the economy, they estimate, the United States will need to be conducting 20 million tests per day, ideally by late July.
“There’s probably never been, in the history of this country, where a single test has become this important,” said Liu.
Researchers at the Jackson Laboratory announced last week that they’ve been aiding in those efforts, starting with running tests from hospitals in their local communities, including Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital in Ellsworth, Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor and MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta.
The nonprofit has run roughly 3,700 tests at its facility in Farmington, Conn., in the past two and a half weeks, said Liu, with the capacity to run roughly 500 per day. “That number is escalating on a daily basis.”
Turnaround time (meaning the time to actually process the sample once it arrives at the lab) is roughly 12 hours, said Liu, although staff tell hospitals 24 hours to give time if a sample comes in late at night.
“There are groups that basically say ‘I’ll take all comers’” said Liu, “The problem with that is they get completely swamped. We’ve decided that we would not do that and we would actually limit the partners that we have in order to provide the fastest turnaround time possible.”
Liu said the lab has no backlog for tests as of right now and that hospital workers prioritize the tests they send to get the fastest results. “Usually they are acutely ill individuals,” said Liu, “And health-care workers that have symptoms and they need the answer.”
The Connecticut lab has 27 people processing tests, said Liu, up from an initial staff of nine. “The 18 new people were all volunteers from our workforce with prior training who we could redirect,” said Liu. Eventually the organization will likely need to hire more workers to run tests, said Liu.
As for testing reagents, swabs and other equipment that’s been in short supply around the nation, “Right now it’s functioning, but when we first began it was really touch-and-go, to be honest with you.”
“Everybody’s supply is limited,” Liu added, “but in terms of for the testing laboratory, they’re really well-stocked.” The organization has good relationships with suppliers, said Liu, and gets most of what it needs on time. They’ve also been “very specific about how we roll it out,” clearly defining capacity for hospitals to whom the lab offers testing.
Liu added that all Jackson Laboratory employees who are symptomatic have been tested and that “Right now, it’s about a handful of those individuals and luckily — knock on wood — JAX has not had one employee who’s been documented infected.”
The lab’s strong ties with China, where it has a research team, have been “extraordinarily beneficial.”
One employee has even been in Wuhan, the epicenter of the initial outbreak, for the past two months, said Liu, “Helping the Chinese government there, taking care of the patients. We’ve learned a lot from him in terms of what they’re doing,” information they’ve shared with state and federal agencies, said Liu.
Employees in China were instrumental, said Liu, in part in “sounding the alarm that we should really be ramping up for testing,” as well as identifying a mouse model that can be used for testing, alerting researchers that they should be expanding those mouse colonies.
The slow level of testing in the United States has been frustrating, said Liu. “It could’ve happened two months ago, to be frank with you, it’s because, quite frankly, the supply chain was not prepared. Nobody prepared them for it. Even though some of us were banging on the table.”
In his daily media briefing on Tuesday, Director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Dr. Nirav Shah said that the state has made significant progress in expanding testing over the last month, but still needs to double or even triple the number of tests being conducted.
A shortage of a chemical needed to conduct the test remains a major barrier and has meant the state is considering switching to a different testing platform with a reagent that’s not in such short supply, said Shah.
The director told the Portland Press Herald in an interview this week that a document presented by the Trump administration had misrepresented the state’s testing capacity, counting the state’s 20 pieces of equipment capable of conducting tests but not taking into account all of the other elements and supplies needed to run them.
“It would be like going to soccer ball manufacturers and saying, ‘Give me a list of everyone who bought a ball,’ and then concluding that’s the number of professional soccer players,” Shah told the Press Herald.
Liu said that testing is beginning to ramp up but cautioned “We can’t deny that this is a problem. The denial part is the stuff that caused this problem in the first place.”
He added that there is no easy answer, including the much-touted antibody tests or a vaccine. “Antibody tests — we don’t know what it means,” said Liu.
As for a vaccine, vaccine researcher Dr. Paul Offit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia told Dr. Zubin Damania earlier this month that the fastest the United States has ever developed a vaccine was four years, for the mumps vaccine. “That was amazingly fast.”
It generally takes 20 years from the initial research to having a vial of vaccine distributed to the country, said Offit. That timeline could change depending on whether certain safety and ethical requirements are relaxed. But it’s still likely to be awhile.
“We have to balance things out in terms of safety and economic return,” said Liu. “That requires that we’re going to continue with some element of social distancing and it’s going to be awhile before we come back to really being normal.”