Why Did it Take so Long to Get Coronavirus Tests?

So… we have a pandemic. This sucks, but, fortunately, with proper mitigation techniques such as quarantine and proper disease modeling we can hopefully slow the spread and, therefore, save lives of people who would be shit out of luck when the hospitals get overrun.

An integral part of implementing these techniques is being able to tell how many people have Covid-19 in the first place. Makes sense, right? So why is this so hard to do in the United States?

Answer: It shouldn’t be.

Currently, scientists are using a method called RT-PCR to determine if someone has the virus. Despite the scary plethora of letters in the name, RT-PCR is actually rather simple. In fact, I ran similar tests in my intro to Biology class my freshman year in college.

What the H is RT-PCR?

Essentially, RT-PCR is determining if the RNA (what this virus uses instead of DNA )in a patient’s cells contain three genes specific to this Coronavirus. First, you get a cheek swab that removes a few cells from your mouth. Then, the RNA from these cells is isolated. Next, scientists add a “Primer” which is designed to attach to these Coronavirus specific genes among all of the RNA found in the sample cells, and replicates those specific genes until scientists have enough of the stuff to clearly tell that they exist. If nothing is replicated, then the patient is deemed negative for the virus.

It’s a relatively simple test. And yet, patients in the United States have been scrambling for test kits that they desperately need. Why is this happening?

First, the CDC initially refused to let any other lab but theirs run these tests. This meant that there was a huge backlog of tests as the lab scrambled to run them all, until the CDC finally let other labs run them.

Second, on Febuary 5th, the CDC finally released many testing kits so that Coronavirus tests could be run in hospitals and the like. However, someone goofed, and the negative controls given were contaminated and showed a positive result.

In English, this means that the tests were worthless. A negative control is a test that is run in the exact same way as the actual Coronavirus test, only without the cell sample from the patient. PCR tests are very easy to accidentally contaminate. This means that, as long as the negative control test showed no presence of Coronavirus genes, if the real test came back positive, the reason it did so was because the cells added contained the virus.

However, the CDC sent out contaminated negative controls, which showed results that indicated the presence of the virus. This is bad, as a positive test run with these kits might only indicate contamination, rather than the presence of the virus in the person tested.

So, the CDC had to recall these kits and develop new ones, leaving everyone with bupkis. Add to this the huge cut in funding the CDC just went through (actually, this lack of funding may be why the tests were improperly made in the first place) and what you get is a massive shitshow. Oregon reports two cases in the beginning of March? Well, if they only have a few tests, this number is not very accurate. Much like that famous line from HBO’s Chernobyl:

Furthermore, the FDA forbid labs from creating their own Coronavirus tests. Luckily, they realized that in the case of a global pandemic, especially one in which the CDC had released faulty tests, this was a terrible idea, and revoked this ban at the end of February.

So what can we do about all of this?

Not much. Luckily, the CDC is rapidly producing more tests, as well as looking into a quick and easy blood test that really should have been used long before now but for some unfathomable reason, has not. Hopefully, in the next few weeks, we will see an emergence of available new tests as labs crowdsource and develop them for medical use.

However, until then, observe the amount of cases in your region with a grain of salt. Just because your hometown doesn’t have any reported cases doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Stay isolated, wash your hands, and be responsible.

We can get through this together if we stay informed. So learn to distinguish facts from wishful thinking, then go save the world by sitting on your ass and watching Netflix. After all, it could be worse. You could be stuck with Cable TV.