But now, time is of the essence. In China, scientists realized the perfect was the enemy of the good. The tests used in China and other parts of Asia were around 90% accurate, says Harvey Rubin, an infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s good enough.

The Covid-19 test works much like DNA fingerprinting used in forensics but with one catch — the virus caries its genetic information in RNA, which is a much more delicate molecule than DNA. “They can get DNA from a woolly mammoth,” says Rubin, and it will be intact, while RNA will fall apart if not in just the right kind of medium, and that medium is now in short supply.

Once the test kits are out there, they need to be free, and the results need to be coordinated.

Then we can finally start attacking this disease scientifically.

Stanford University professor John Ioannidis, who has long been a proponent of more evidence-based decision making in medicine, criticized the U.S. approach to Covid-19 today in an opinion piece for the medical website STATnews. “With lockdowns of months, if not years, life largely stops, short-term and long-term consequences are entirely unknown, and billions, not just millions, of lives may be eventually at stake,” he wrote. “If we decide to jump off the cliff, we need some data to inform us about the rationale of such an action and the chances of landing somewhere safe.”

It’s true that it’s very hard to make rational decisions without data — but to get that data, we need testing. We already have enough information from China and elsewhere to make educated guesses about where this could be headed. And one thing that the current data, flawed as they are, tell us: We need to put all resources possible into getting better data.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

First « 1 2 » Next