Dr. Ashish Jha addresses Congress, urging Feds to do more on testing, support states

Participating in a virtual briefing for members of the House Coronavirus Oversight Committee, Dr. Ashish Jha, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI), said the federal government must do more to increase testing, support states to help increase testing, and to encourage innovative, new tests to identify those testing positive for COVID-19.

“Our initial response to the pandemic has been wholly inadequate,” Dr. Jha told the committee, citing the more than 80,000 U.S. deaths. “To make sure there are fewer deaths and less economic devastation in  the weeks and months ahead, we must pursue  a strategy based on science and data.”

Read Dr. Jha’s full testimony:

“Chairman Clyburn, Ranking member Scalise, and members of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

My name is Ashish Jha. I am a practicing physician, a professor at Harvard University and Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. I am honored to join you today.

We are at a pivotal moment in the Coronavirus Crisis. Our initial response to the pandemic has been wholly inadequate:  More than 80,000 of our fellow Americans have died and more than 20 million Americans have lost their jobs. As we enter the next phase of this pandemic, we must do better.

We are, despite all the losses, still early in this pandemic.

To make sure there are fewer deaths and less economic devastation in  the weeks and months ahead, we must pursue  a strategy based on science and data. Such a strategy includes ongoing measures to maintain social distancing as well as vigorous testing, tracing, and isolation. Along with innovations in therapies and vaccines from the private sector, we can beat this virus and emerge stronger as a nation.  But it will not be easy.

My fellow speakers today will cover critical issues around tracing and isolation, investing in public health, opening safely, and innovations, I want to focus my remarks on testing, informed by the work of the Harvard Global Health Institute that I lead, and our analysis of testing nationally and state by state.

Testing is the cornerstone of the response to the Coronavirus outbreak. While testing alone is not enough, without adequate testing, we do not know who has the disease and who doesn’t, and we cannot control the outbreak.  It was the failure to have adequate testing that precipitated the national shutdown of  the past two months.  We cannot repeat that costly mistake and yet, without adequate testing, states are reopening.

Our analysis from the Harvard Global Health Institute suggests we need more than 900,000 tests per day to safely open the country and keep it open. At this moment, the US is conducting approximately 300,000 tests per day. While states are taking a critical role in administering tests, they cannot do it alone. The federal government must provide leadership.

I believe that there are 5 key steps the federal government must take.

  • First, the federal government must see the entire supply chain and use the Defense Production Act and other tools to ensure adequate supplies required for testing are delivered where they are needed.
  • Second, the federal government must take a key coordinating role. There are states with ample swabs, for instance but inadequate reagents. Other states lack swabs but have adequate reagents. Only the federal government has visibility into these issues and can play a key role in helping coordinate supply of materials across states.
  • Third, the federal government must define a testing strategy to help states implement whom to test. It is critical to have enough tests – but it is just as important to be testing the right people. This includes guidance on testing patients with symptoms, testing individuals in high risk groups, and strategies for preventing large scale outbreaks., It is just not accurate to say everyone who wants a test can get a test. It is incumbent on the federal government to ensure that everyone who should be tested, is tested.
  • Fourth, the federal government has to incentivize the creation of new testing modalities, through financial rewards for rapid tests and more accurate tests. The private sector in the US is highly innovative but needs to know that there will be a market for that innovation and that someone will pay for those tests. To that end, Congress can create incentives for new breakthrough technologies that can lead to cheaper, faster, and higher quality tests.
  • Finally, it is critical that the federal government set appropriate targets for testing and communicate those targets. For months, the Administration has been saying we have enough tests when we don’t. This  has sent a signal to markets against investing in additional capacity. Against investing in new testing capabilities  — at precisely the moment when these investments are critical.

Even the testing target set by Admiral Brett Giroir, the Administration’s testing coordinator, of 1 to 1.5 million tests a day by the fall. is wholly inadequate. We need nearly that many tests now.

In the fall, when the next wave of Covid-19 hits, we will need far more testing capacity if we are to have a chance of getting kids back to school and people back to work.  Nobel Laureate Paul Romer has estimated that we might need nearly 30 million tests a day, not per month. By understating the need for testing, the Administration is doing more harm than good. Instead, the Administration must set realistic targets for what the nation needs and develop a road map to get there.

We are at a critical juncture in our national response to this pandemic. If we act smartly now – substantially ramp up testing and pair it  with tracing and isolation – we can open up safely and protect American lives. This will allow Americans to get back to work, knowing they are safe in their workplaces and safe when they return home to their families.  Too many have died.  We can honor their memories by doing everything in our power to prevent more needless deaths.

Thank you.”