Addressing the media alongside the coronavirus task force on Thursday, Donald Trump said he would “slash red tape like nobody has even done it before” to get approval for coronavirus treatments.
That would be a welcome development indeed. What’s unfortunate is that there was no similar push at the beginning of the crisis to expedite coronavirus testing. The U.S. response to the pandemic has been hampered at every level due to insufficient testing capacity.
The first coronavirus case in the U.S. and South Korea was detected on January 21. Since then, South Korea has effectively contained the coronavirus without shutting down its economy or quarantining tens of millions of people. Instead, the Korean government has pursued a “trace, test, and treat” strategy that identifies and isolates those infected with the coronavirus while allowing healthy people to go about their normal lives. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan have also managed to contain the virus via a combination of travel restrictions, social distancing, and heightened hygiene.
Unfortunately, the United States has not made testing widely available and now various regions are being forced to impose severe economic and social lockdowns. As of March 17, the U.S. had tested only about 125 people per million. South Korea had tested more than 5,000 people per million. Between early February and mid-March, the U.S. lost six crucial weeks because regulators stuck to rigid regulations instead of adapting as new information came in. While these rules might have made sense in normal times, they proved disastrous in a pandemic.