Let’s take a big, second bite at the mass testing apple

We made many mistakes in our response to the coronavirus over the past year.  One of the most critical was our failure to massively expand our capacity to produce coronavirus tests and masks and other PPE.  As many economists including Paul Romer noted last spring, mass testing and wide distribution of high quality masks would probably have allowed us to crush the virus and return to something close to normal life even in the absence of a vaccine.  Given that it was far from clear when or even if an effective vaccine would arrive, a large investment in mass testing and PPE production seemed like a no-brainer, but we didn’t do it.  This was one of the most serious and easily avoidable errors in our covid response. 

But what about now?  President Biden asked for $50 billion in his American Recovery Act to expand rapid testing, to help schools reopen.  This investment is critical, although the rationale is much too limited.  There is a real chance that the coronavirus will evolve in a way that lets it escape the current vaccines.  I don’t know how likely this is.  But even a small risk of viral escape would justify a large investment in testing and PPE production to let us keep a new variant of the virus under control while new vaccines are developed. 

Congressional Democrats should make this a high priority in the covid package they are working on.  A major investment in vaccine development and creation of accelerated vaccine testing procedures is also critical.  A protracted outbreak of a new covid strain will be a disaster for the country – a health disaster first, then an economic disaster, and finally a political disaster when Democrats get blamed for the never-ending hardships.

(I looked for information on the status of the legislation but didn’t find anything on point.  Anyone know of something?)