This article is part of Harvard Medical School’s continuing coverage of medicine, biomedical research, medical education, and policy related to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the disease COVID-19.
On Jan. 19, 2020, a 35-year-old man entered an urgent care clinic north of Seattle. With a fever and a dry, persistent cough, he might have been treated for seasonal flu or a common cold under normal circumstances. But only five days earlier, he had returned from a trip to Wuhan, China, where a new flu-like illness was beginning to spread rapidly.
Doctors swabbed his nose and throat and sent the samples to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for testing. A day later, the CDC returned a positive result for a virus soon to be known as SARS-CoV-2. The U.S. had diagnosed its first COVID-19 patient—the first droplet of the flood that was about to engulf the country.
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Diagnostic tests are the backbone of efforts to track, treat, and control any infectious disease. Early on in the pandemic, however, uncertainty reigned as the CDC and clinics and hospitals around the country faced overwhelming demand for testing. The ensuing problems—ranging from slow turnaround and depleted or faulty reagents to concerns over error rates and false positives and negatives—strained the country’s pandemic response.
Today, while diagnostic needs are far from met, more than 1.5 million COVID-19 tests are carried out in the U.S. every day, and a total of more than 300 million tests have been administered in a little over a year. Driven by a wellspring of innovation, new approaches and technologies, such as point-of-care and at-home tests, are now emerging as diagnostic options.
From the very beginning, scientists and clinicians at Harvard raced to address the unmet needs of the pandemic, including pushing at the frontiers of diagnostic science. Last March, together with colleagues across Massachusetts and at the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Health in China, Harvard Medical School spearheaded the formation of the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness, or MassCPR, in a sweeping effort to tackle every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic and to prepare for future pandemics.
As the first anniversary of MassCPR approaches, Harvard Medicine News spoke with the co-leads of its diagnostics working group about where we stand with COVID-19 diagnostics today, and where we need to be tomorrow.