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Fred Hutch scientist: Coronavirus response ‘Apollo program of our time’

Drive-thru coronavirus testing at UW Medicine. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

There are fears that even after coronavirus cases die down, it could rebound if social distancing measures are relaxed. So, how do we limit that potential rebound? With what one Fred Hutchinson scientist labels “the Apollo program of our time.”

Bill Gates estimates at least 6-10 weeks before coronavirus is quelled

A recent research paper out of Imperial College posits that in a scenario where coronavirus cases dip and suppression measures are relaxed, if a vaccine still has yet to be produced, “transmission will quickly rebound.”

With that in mind, the paper estimates that we wouldn’t be able to relax social distancing measures for up to 18 months. Fred Hutchinson’s Trevor Bedford doesn’t quite agree with that timeline, and instead sees that as a risk that can be mitigated with the proper precautions.

“I’m not quite that pessimistic,” he notes. “Although I agree that basic mitigation efforts won’t stop the epidemic, I have hope that we can solve this thing by doing traditional shoe leather epidemiology of case finding and isolation, but at scale, using modern technology.”

He details a trio of possible strategies. The first involves “a massive rollout of testing capacity,” in order to track a “significant proportion” of infections spread by those who are either experiencing mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.

“If someone can be tested early in their illness before they show symptoms, they could effectively self isolate and reduce onward transmission compared to isolation when symptoms develop,” he described.

He points to the success of countries like South Korea, where the spread of coronavirus has largely been controlled thanks in large part to the country’s capacity to test tens of thousands of people daily.

Graphs: Coronavirus cases across the US and Worldwide

In order to facilitate that uptick in testing, he recommends home delivery of swabs “with centralized lab-based processing combined with drive-through testing facilities.”

The second strategy he cites would use mobile phone location data, cross-referenced with confirmed cases to “alert possible exposures to self isolate and get tested.” That way, widespread exposure can be cut off at the knees before it ever occurs.

“This strategy targets testing capacity at most likely cases and serves to detect exposure events early, when isolation is most valuable,” said Bedford.

The third and final strategy would be to locate those who have recovered from the virus and are no longer contagious, “to systematically identify individuals who … are highly likely to possess immunity.”

“Together, I believe these (and other case-based) strategies can bring down the epidemic,” Bedford concluded. “This is the Apollo program of our times. Let’s get to it.”

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