A Radical Testing Solution to Reopen the Economy—Now

‘We have the potential to end this thing in two weeks and get everyone out of their homes and back at work,’ says Laurence Kotlikoff, professor of economics at Boston University. Here’s his plan.

As the country begins to seriously discuss how best to get the economy moving again by reopening businesses, the wild card remains the potential for re-igniting COVID-19 outbreaks. While there has been a great deal of progress made in slowing the progress of the virus in the nation’s big hotspots, the question of what happens when social distancing is reduced remains unknown.

Laurence Kotlikoff, professor of economics at Boston University, thinks he has a solution: test groups of Americans for COVID-19, not just individuals.

“We have the potential to end this thing in two weeks and get everyone out of their homes and back at work,” says Laurence Kotlikoff, professor of economics at Boston University. “The key is to mandate that every single American is tested in large groups at once, and then to isolate infected people from those who aren’t.”

It’s a message Kotlikoff has been disseminating globally in making the case for an innovative group coronavirus testing process he developed with his brother Michael, a professor of Molecular Biology and provost of Cornell University. His prediction for recovery hinges on how federal and state governments respond to the pandemic.

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Group testing is a vastly more efficient process than individual testing, explains Kotlikoff, who outlines an aggressive testing and response program aimed at combatting infection. By swabbing the mouths of 1,000 people at once—grouped, perhaps, by voting districts—the tests can be pooled for a single aggregate view of the findings.

Each group would be tested twice. If the entire group isn’t infected, they’re good to go and can return to normal life. If one person in the group is infected, the second swab of each person would be tested to identify who is infected.

“We could test the entire U.S. population in a single day and then quarantine all the infected individuals immediately at hospitals, homes, hotels, community centers and the like to stop the spread,” Kotliokoff says. “Obviously, for it to work, we need strict compliance, oversight and medical monitoring.”

People found to be free of infection would be given a green ID badge or bracelet to wear at all times, allowing them to return to work, he suggests. “My hope is for daily testing, preferably by the military, on a household-by-household basis at election polling places and other local venues. Will this be costly? Yes, but nowhere near the costs of a business shutdown lasting months and months.

“If the government takes our advice—and we’re receiving lots of positive comments—I predict a V-shaped recovery, with the diagonals coming so close together it looks like an I,” he says.

Kotlikoff is calling on CEOs to help get the message out and press for aggressive action. “If the government dithers and doesn’t set this up, or people think the idea of requiring green bracelets is ridiculous, then we’ll just keep plodding along,” he says, adding that the private sector has the power to make a difference on a global scale.

“If we do things right here, then companies across the world will follow our lead, including those in emerging economies suffering the most. We can get the entire world back to business in two months, six at the most if we have a really bad depression.”