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Why it’s been difficult to develop a standard coronavirus test

Testing for the coronavirus continues to ramp up. (Getty Images)

Part of the difficulty with testing and determining infection numbers for coronavirus is that we’re still learning about it as we try to catch up with the outbreak. Chief Medical Officer at PRO Medical Dr. Gordon Cohen joined Seattle’s Morning News to discuss the current state of the coronavirus test.

“The problem with the coronavirus in general is that we don’t know enough information and so we’re learning as people are getting more and more sick, and we’re seeing what happens with the natural course of their disease,” Cohen said. “Some people die, some people recover. Some people have very mild symptomatology.”

Why has it been so difficult in this country to develop standard coronavirus testing? Dr. Cohen explains.

“There’s been a lot of criticism about our ability in the United States to do the test and our ability to ramp up rapidly now. I think there’s a few reasons for that. One of them is that the FDA oversaw the whole process and had controls over the CDC and the NIH in terms of their ability to develop a test,” he said.

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“The second thing is initially a lot of centers were just developing their own test, and this is what’s happened around the world, whereas in the United States we wanted to have one single test that was consistent throughout the entire country so that we could better understand the disease, and frankly, I think that’s the right thing to do, although it’s taking longer to do.”

When there are different labs each working on their own coronavirus test using different reagents, the potential for inaccurate results exists, further complicating the issue.

“There could be an excessive number of false positives and excessive number of false negatives. So what the CDC wanted to do was create one standardized test for the entire country. And unfortunately, the first test that they sent out had a problem with one of the reagents. So they’ve had to redo it. But nonetheless, they’re working now very rapidly on getting out a single standardized test to be run by all the labs across the country.”

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Additionally, Cohen said the labs may not be set up to do this particular type of test, which means there’s training involved, and facilities may need to be modified.

“So it’s not as simple as just making a bunch of kits and sending them to a bunch of labs and saying, ‘Here, do the test.'”

He stressed the need to increase testing, especially of those with symptoms, so we can gain a better grasp on how the this disease is behaving and how to effectively combat it.

“It is important from a public health point of view to test virtually anybody who’s symptomatic so that we understand the disease and how it’s behaving. One of the problems with this virus is that there’s no information,” Cohen said. “Out of a world of seven billion people, we’ve got 165,000 cases, and it’s spread across 120 plus different countries.”

“So we don’t really understand how the disease really transmits very well, although we’re learning. We don’t understand the lethality of it, although we’re learning, and we don’t even necessarily understand how it affects different age groups. … Ultimately, more data will come from more testing associated with various demographics, various medical histories and other information that could be used to better deal with how to treat this disease.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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