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As testing becomes a central focus in the U.S. fight against the coronavirus pandemic, a world-renowned economist released a $100 billion pathway to mass testing.
Paul Romer, former chief economist of the World Bank, said until a vaccine is developed and ready to be widely distributed, testing is the best way to reopen the U.S. economy.
“Lifting the lockdown without a plan, surrendering to the virus, and letting it return to its path of exponential growth would be devastating in both economic and human costs,” Romer wrote. “It won’t matter if everyone is free to do anything they want. Fear and uncertainty spawned by surrender will paralyze us all.”
The plan calls for testing every person in the U.S., with essential workers taking priority. Anyone who tested positive would be isolated. Tests would be administered “regularly,” with every two weeks the recommendation. That would mean 25 million tests per day.
In order to get testing to those levels, Romer advocates for removing regulatory barriers and establishing a network of university and national labs.
It would also require substantial funding – about $100 billion altogether, including the costs of infrastructure and training. Those funds would be issued in block grants to the states.
Romer argues that those costs outweigh the downside of lifting the lockdown without a testing strategy. Until Americans feel confident, economic losses would only be slightly reduced, as people acted out of fear and uncertainty. Under lockdown, Romer says, the U.S. economy loses $500 billion per month. Lifting the lockdown without mass testing to ease that fear may only reduce losses by about $100 billion.
“A temporary relaxation of lockdown will offer little economic benefit because it won’t give consumers or firms the necessary confidence to plan and invest,” Romer said.
The strategy is aimed at limiting the spread of the virus to no more than 5 percent of the population.
The ramped-up testing procedures would be in place until a vaccine is “widely available.”
When asked about the U.S. testing capacity, President Trump on Thursday said he thinks the country is doing “a great job.”
Increased testing would address a concern that many individuals with coronavirus are believed to be asymptomatic – spreading the virus to vulnerable groups without knowing they are infected.
As of Thursday, there were more than 856,200 domestic COVID-19 cases and more than 47,200 deaths.
The economic toll has been steep – over the past five weeks more than 26 million Americans have filed unemployment claims.