The chief executive of one of the largest diagnostics companies has called for governments to set clear testing guidelines for schools, employers and travel businesses so they can be ready for a return to normal life.
Thomas Polen, BD’s chief executive, said there had been a lot of talk on how to roll out rapid testing from airports to stadiums but companies were holding back from making large orders of tests until they knew what the rules were.
He said the world was at a “transition point” in testing, as the tests for symptomatic patients fall but orders for tests in “non-traditional” settings have yet to ramp up. He said these organisations needed to know how often to test and how they would be expected to report the data.
“There’s an important role of governments to put out clear guidance in terms of getting back into sports, or for airlines, and to help schools,” he told the Financial Times.
He added there was “wide variation” in how governments around the world viewed testing, with countries including the Netherlands and Canada taking the most aggressive approach.
BD has dramatically expanded production for many essential items during the pandemic, from tests to syringes used for vaccines.
The New Jersey-based company forecasts it will make more than 100m Covid-19 tests this year. It has already scaled up test manufacturing — including both molecular tests conducted in labs and rapid tests — from making 10m between July and September 2020 to expecting to hit 12m a month in March.
BD’s rapid tests are already used by sports teams to diagnose their players, travellers crossing borders in some Asian countries, and universities and manufacturing plants.
Even as vaccination begins to control the spread of Covid-19, testing may be required for more risky activities such as large events or travel. UK government officials have suggested that proof of a negative Covid test might be used as an alternative to a vaccine passport, amid concerns that people may resist vaccination.
Yet rapid tests have been controversial, as some scientists fear they show too many false negatives, telling people they are not infected when they are. Polen said that while PCR tests find more positive cases, BD’s rapid tests can be used to determine who is infectious.
“If your goal becomes not clinical diagnosis but understanding, are the people moving into this building contagious? . . . Rapid testing is a great tool,” he said.
However, Jon Deeks, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, believes a better strategy might be relying on symptomatic testing and then contact tracing around localised outbreaks.
“If the level of disease is really low and the benefits of doing mass testing become smaller and smaller . . . the costs, and the harms, become disproportionate to the benefits,” he said.
“We’ll be actually excluding people from school and we will be causing economic harm to families by forcing them to self-isolate.”