A Harvard Plan To Use Massive COVID-19 Testing To Reopen the Economy

This proposal might work, but it's doubtful that our politicians and president are competent enough to pull it off.


To fully restart the U.S. economy by August, massive population testing for infections with the virus that causes COVID-19 is essential, according to the roadmap to pandemic resilience just issued today by the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Testing results should be available the next day at the latest. The roadmap also sketches out a system of tracing the contacts of people who are infected by the coronavirus. Those contacts are warned about their exposure and tested numerous times. If a contact's tests turn positive they should be provided supported isolation that includes job protections, safe shelter, food, and health care. The authors of the report estimate that this scheme for testing, tracing, and supported isolation (TTSI) would cost between $50 to $300 billion over two years. As they note this is extremely cheap compared to "the economic cost of continued collective quarantine of $100 to 350 billion a month."

How much testing would be required to implement their proposed roadmap? "We estimate that steady-state testing levels that would permit replacing collective stay-at-home orders as the main tool for disease control with a testing—tracing-and-warning—supported-isolation, or TTSI, methodology will eventually need to reach a capacity to test 2 to 6% of the population per day, or between 5 and 20 million people per day," note the authors.

How would they achieve a rapid increase in testing capacity? Given how badly federal agencies botched testing as the coronavirus outbreak was growing, the authors wisely recommend turning to the private sector. "The government should not hesitate to pay substantial sums to incentivize the private sector to apply ingenuity and speed to develop solutions," note the authors. "Prizes and advance market commitments are two tools to be considered."

In order to warn people who have come into contact with an infected person that they should be tested, the authors recommend initially hiring and training 100,000 contact tracers at a cost of $3.6 billion. Such manual contact tracing could be supplemented with opt-in peer-to-peer cell phone warning apps. The researchers suggest that the deployment of such apps include maximal privacy protection, use open-source code amenable to independent and regulatory audit, and prohibit the use of any data from these apps for commercial purposes.

Frustratingly, the Safra Center authors do not discuss prohibiting government abuse of the tracking functions and data collected by the apps (that is, immigration authorities and law enforcement). In order to forestall our government from using the pandemic as an excuse to further violate our civil rights and privacy, we should adopt the proposals recommended by the Ada Lovelace Institute (ALI) in its similar testing-and-tracking scheme for the United Kingdom. The ALI authors warn that "there is a real risk that the expansion of state intrusion into individuals' lives that occurs during emergencies endures beyond the originating crisis." Consequently, they recommend:

Legal and technical sunset clauses must be built into the design of new powers and technologies. Government must provide advance primary legislation regulating the processing of data by both public and private sector actors in the use of technology to transition from the crisis. Government must encourage privacy-by-design in technical implementations and must choose privacy-preserving protocols to underscore technical measures.

Recommendations like these must be part of any wide-scale U.S. COVID-19 testing and tracing plan.

The Safra Center authors sketch out a four-phase program aimed at fully reopening the economy by the end of this summer. During phase one, they recommend increasing publicly-funded diagnostic testing capability to 2 million tests per day, focusing on everyone with symptoms and their close contacts, as well as essential workers, nursing home residents, and incarcerated people. With this amount of testing, they estimate that 40 to 55 percent of people could return to work.

With the testing and tracing regime solidly in place, COVID-19 case rates would decline, thus enabling the initiation of phase two in the next month. With further expansion of testing and tracing, 70 percent of the workforce could return to work. Those who can work at home would still do so and vulnerable people (e.g. those over age 60) would continue to limit their time in the community. In phase three, increased testing and tracing that covers 80 percent of the workforce in localities would allow most non-telecommuting laborers to return to work. In phase four, universal testing would be available and schools could reopen.

The roadmap, as outlined, could likely work. However, assuming that the real and substantial technical difficulties in ramping up that much daily testing can be overcome, the ongoing economic distress makes it unlikely that the public would endure the implementation of such a careful plan. And even if the public did remain patient, it's doubtful that the bureaucrats and politicians in Washington, including our chaotic president, have the competence to pull it off.


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  1. No way are we waiting for anything like this.

    1. “Oh, very well. We’ll settle for everyone having a phone app that blurts out ‘UNCLEAN!’ every five seconds.”

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  2. By AUGUST? It’s amazing to me that everybody just “forgot” that the whole point of distancing was to flatten the curve to ensure our system wasn’t overwhelmed. By now it’s CLEAR that the models overestimated resource usage based on numbers of out Wuhan (bad air) and Italy, where they mingled covid patients with the already-sick at the hospital.

    Other than densely populated places, there’s literally no chance of this overrunning our system. Focus on increasing capacity in those places. As it is, nurses are getting laid off because there’s nothing for them to do! This is MADNESS! Stop making it illegal to go to work!

    1. Americans were blindly obeying the government. That is wonderful and must be kept going.

    2. It’s amazing how many people forget this and just follow along with “We must eradicate the virus!” without thinking about what that means, or if it’s possible.

      1. Yes, it’s been a constant shifting of goalposts. For states that have flattened the curve, they need to slowly reopen and get back to normal.

        I don’t know why everyone is now thinking we can’t let corona kill ANYONE at the expense of every other societal ill that will follow in a huge recession.

  3. I’ve been assured by many Reason commentators that testing is useless and is not required for anything related to COVID.

    1. >>testing is useless

      good for getting everyone in the same control group.

    2. Testing just provides data. It doesn’t actually provide any insight into what to do with that data. Nor have the states given any indication what to do with that data either. If data shows widespread infection or minimal infection then what? If it is widespread will the speed up the reopening or extend the lockdown? If not widespread doesn’t that just increase the size of the at risk population and therefore argue for more lockdowns? Let’s get real, what does the data actually do but provide partisan groups with more ammunition to push their agendas?

      1. Well said.

  4. We’re so fucked.

    1. Be of good cheer. Harvard’s on the job and has produced a plan to save us all — simple, elegant and impossible. They seem to feel that with enough money thrown in random directions and enough rules that can’t be followed it’ll be easy to get out of this. As someone once said, “Everything is simple for the man who doesn’t have to do it.”

      1. Harvard proved its collective judgement by choosing David Hogg over Kyle Kashuv. What could go wrong?

  5. Nope. I’m not waiting for permission for my freedoms.


    American Journalists Publish Chinese Propaganda
    New York, while this has crippled our nation throwing 30 million people out of work, never closed the subways. They never restricted access to “essential services.” They only instituted a mask order *YESTERDAY*

    But “we’re all in this together”, huh?
    9:19 AM · Apr 18, 2020·Twitter for iPhone
    American Journalists Publish Chinese Propaganda
    Apr 18
    Replying to
    35% of all cases in the country are from New York. But hey you in New Mexico, fuck your local park. Close it. The New York subways? We’re gonna YOLO that shit.
    American Journalists Publish Chinese Propaganda
    Apr 18
    The center-of-the-universe New Yorker attitude I can handle on an everyday basis. When you start shutting down my life and putting my friends and family out of work and you won’t even close your own virus-spreading hotzone subway? Seriously fuck off. All of you.

    1. >>The New York subways? We’re gonna YOLO that shit.

      this is lol. and totally the tell on “it wasn’t going to be The Stand, Part Deux.”

      1. Great line

  7. The Pandemic’s Hidden Victims: Sick or Dying, but Not From the Virus

    Maria Kefalas considers her husband, Patrick Carr, a forgotten victim of the coronavirus.

    In January, Mr. Carr, a sociology professor at Rutgers University, suffered a relapse of the blood cancer that he has had for eight years. Once again, he required chemotherapy to try to bring the disease, multiple myeloma, under control.

    But this time, as the coronavirus began raging through Philadelphia, blood supplies were rationed and he couldn’t get enough of the transfusions needed to alleviate his anemia and allow chemo to begin. Clinic visits were canceled even as his condition worsened.

    For Mr. Carr and many others, the pandemic has shaken every aspect of health care, including cancer, organ transplants and even brain surgery.

    On April 7, Mr. Carr began receiving home hospice care. He died on April 16. He was 53. The pandemic “expedited his death,” Ms. Kefalas said.

    1. Expect more of these stories. People think elective means nose jobs and fake titties. But a lot of life saving medical care is classified elective because you won’t die immediately, but delaying surgery will significantly shorten your lifespan.

    2. “The pandemic “expedited his death,” Ms. Kefalas said.”

      The government killed him with needless unconstitutional edicts that were blindly followed by medical professionals who should have know better.

  8. a four-phase program aimed at fully reopening the economy by the end of this summer.

    The chart has for its August Phase 4 “Return 20% of at-home workers to offices”. How is *that* “fully reopening the economy”? What am I missing, Ron?

    1. These people are economically illiterate sociopaths.

      1. They might be. Bailey’s been here long enough, he should know better.

        Waiting until August to open up part of the economy is insane. It was clearly said upthread: the whole point of shutting stuff down was to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system. Looks like that’s not a possibility in the vast majority of places because of what we know now. So let people go back to work, summer school, the NBA, or whatever else they feel like doing.

        Let the power of an unbound economy lead us to greater prosperity, including having enough supplemental industrial power to investigate as many paths as possible to a cure for this virus.

        1. I know this can be hard, Gray, so we’ll go over it once more. Ron Bailey is what is called a “journalist” or “reporter”. When he writes a story reporting on somebody else’s plan, he is not endorsing that plan or saying it’s a good plan. That’s what “reporting” is — just telling us about things that people who are not Ron himself have said or done.

          Keep practicing. You’ll get better at discerning these things.

          1. Tell us more about how we broke you.

          2. Reason had never been a straight news organization. The writers generally editorialize along with reporting. The fact that Ron has in the past advocated for massive testing (since February) and fails to offer any counterpoints suggests he is not opposed to this policy. It is called drawing an educated inference from information and the writer’s previous positions.

          3. So when Ronnie chose to denigrate one treatment by citing one out of many studies to only support another drug with one study a few hours later… he was just reporting and not using any opinionated writing?

            You’re broken.

            1. Well yeah, he admitted it. Why he keeps commenting after telling us we won…


              1. Think he is only at stage 4 of Jeff. Still one more stage to go.

      2. It isn’t just economics. They are illiterate at a whole lot more as well.

        1. It’s not what they don’t know that’s dangerous. It’s what they know that ain’t so.

      3. Well, the headline did say “Harvard”.
        I just kind of skimmed it, but I did not see where Harvard planned to use any of its bazillion dollar endowment to fund any tiny part of this madness.

        1. What? Our money? You must be mad.

  9. The roadmap, as outlined, could likely work. However, assuming that the real and substantial technical difficulties in ramping up that much daily testing can be overcome, the ongoing economic distress makes it unlikely that the public would endure the implementation of such a careful plan. And even if the public did remain patient, it’s doubtful that the bureaucrats and politicians in Washington, including our chaotic president, have the competence to pull it off.

    I have a somewhat similar plan to re-open the economy, except it involves me waving a magic wand as I soar through the heavens on my flying unicorn. No, not to cure the coronavirus, that would be too easy. I instead propose to change the nature of politicians and bureaucrats such that they would do what is right and proper simply for the sake of doing what’s right and proper rather than always looking to what is in their own self-interest. Like they do in whatever country it is you might be thinking of that is so unlike those uniquely American politicians and bureaucrats in Washington that are probably incompetent to pull off a simple exercise in central planning. North Korea, maybe? I’m trusting the politicians and bureaucrats in North Korea will be as competent at re-opening the North Korean economy as they have been at dealing with the whole coronavirus pandemic thing. (I’m assuming they must be competent because I’ve never heard the North Koreans complaining about their government being incompetent.)

    1. If you can ride a unicorn you should be able to tweak that magic spell so that politicians do nothing when nothing is needed.

      1. Bailey would prefer to ride the unicorns head.


    The results are from the first round of an ongoing study by USC researchers and Public Health officials. They will be conducting antibody testing over time on a series of representative samples of adults to determine the scope and spread of the pandemic across the county.

    Based on results of the first round of testing, the research team estimates that approximately 4.1% of the county’s adult population has antibody to the virus. Adjusting this estimate for statistical margin of error implies about 2.8% to 5.6% of the county’s adult population has antibody to the virus- which translates to approximately 221,000 to 442,000 adults in the county who have had the infection. That estimate is 28 to 55 times higher than the 7,994 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported to the county by the time of the study in early April. The number of COVID-related deaths in the county has now surpassed 600.

    Yet more evidence that the denominator is FAR FAR higher than officials think.

    1. E: Done by essentially the same set of researchers that did the Santa Clara study. This would be good news if confirmed. As you know. the Santa Clara study has been heavily criticized by some statisticians. The Stanford researchers have told me that they plan to issue in response to the criticisms a revised update to the Santa Clara study soon (today possibly). My colleague Jacob Sullum will be reporting on the new LA study shortly.

      1. Do you find it odd that every single of these antibody tests that seem to portend to tell good news are immediately dismissed as garbage by the doomer crowd? Seems like a ton of these Antibody test’s all seem to be “wrong” in the same direction. Also the Chelsea study seemed pretty promising as well.

        1. I’m a huge skeptic of the strategy employed here by the state’s for a myriad of reasons but that’s not to say I don’t think the virus is made up or not a threat. It just seems like a series of shifting goalposts since we started with no end in sight,with no actual quantifiable goals to determine how successful this completely untested lock-down strategy is. For an organization as conservative and risk averse as the Federal gov seems to be on trying new things out they don’t seem to have any reservations at all at telling everyone they need to remain in their homes and not access their business or property for a indeterminate amount of time with no discernible metrics for what success would look like.

        2. If it gets too alarming that the data wont begrudgingly match the model we will have to start adjusting the data.

          1. Hmmm….adjusting the data, eh? You mean like creating a hockey stick generator that even works on structured noise? Forgetting to mention that Western Antarctica is on geological hotspot when reporting on excessive melt in that region? Using garbage data to make up a hot spot in the Troposphere? Or maybe trusting engine inlet temp data from a 100 years ago to make the sea surface temperature higher than it really is?

  11. Bullshit. We shut down the economy to flatten the curve. We’ve flattened the curve. The plan was never to wait out the virus, nor is it possible to wait out the virus even if we wanted to.

    1. We don’t know if we’ve “flattened it” because they never set out metrics or target numbers to base on what that actually meant. We just need to trust them.

      1. Didn’t see you posted this before I commented below, but I agree wholeheartedly.

        No baselines, no endpoints and, therefore, no reliable method to measure the results or to make an intelligent assessment. I don’t think was accidental. Power grabs rarely are.

        1. Now, Geraje, we talked about this before. Besides the possibility of power grabs as a motivation, there can be incompetence. It can look similar. One rule that will help is if you try not to read other people’s minds; what you think is your ability to see their motivations magically is really your (wonderful) imagination at work.

          1. Right but you admitted you’re a weak peraon who was easily broken by some internet comments.

            1. It is easy to break foundations made upon sand.

          2. Please, tell me more about incompetence, you stupid fucking cunt sponge.

          3. Given how both parties seem willing to assert government control over just about every aspect of our lives, how is it not logical to conclude that at least some of their motivation is further controlling our lives?

          4. Remember, sarcasmic here doesn’t see any government oversteps… they are simply strongly suggesting compliance.

            1. ..… only where he lives, though.

    2. The plan was never to wait out the virus

      Whose plan?

  12. …it’s doubtful that the bureaucrats and politicians in Washington, including our chaotic president, have the competence to pull it off.

    How. DARE. You.

  13. Harvard? The clingers would never go for it, even if they could understand it.

    Perhaps if Ouachita Baptist or Bob Jones could be persuaded to act as a co-sponsor, though . . .

  14. Why don’t we open the economy based on the metrics we closed it on? Bullshit models and guesswork.

    1. >>Bullshit models and guesswork.

      love it. the model w/the dow @35k in August should work.

  15. Other than this proving that highly educated people are not necessarily smart, why would we do this process? It is hugely expensive and requires people to be retested over and over.

    If you were going to do a massive testing program, test not only for the presence of the virus but also the antibodies. If a person has the antibodies you don’t have to retest for a year.

    The reason that this is totally stupid is that it is a roadmap for the next virus. We will be a loop where we shut down the economy every couple of years because of a new virus.

    I just saw a Rasmussen survey where 60% of democrats blame Trump for the virus and not China.

    And on another note, I understand that Illinois wants 10 billion from the feds under the spending on this virus for their underfunded pension plan.

    1. And something like 40 billion in total federal aid.

      I think they might actually get it. Money printer go Brrrrr.

      1. At the rate we’re going, I’m probably going to be able to print money that will be worth every bit as much as the government’s.

  16. “To fully restart the U.S. economy by August”

    By August there won’t be anything to restart.

    1. Feature or bug?

  17. We never knew what the curve was, and will never know if we “flattened” it. It’s an unprovable and unfalsifiable premise, and deliberately so. Nobody ever set out any reliable measures or numbers, and the projections were all based upon unanchored speculation.

    To make matter worse, we are gradually settling for absurd preconditions to resuming our lives because the standards we are striving to meet are being made up on the spot, and change day by day. The illusion of control over something fundamentally uncontrollable has shattered, and all we are left with are lingering delusions about the “temporary” nature of increasingly intrusive government controls when in fact the controls will be permanent and all encompassing.

    This was never intended to end, absent widespread civil resistance, it never will.

    1. I think you’re applying to much thought into malevolence into what just amounts to pure dipshittery, constituent demands and appalling economic sense. But right now it’s a distinction without a difference. Their intentions are meaningless because we arrived at a what amounts to a dystopian prisonstate.

      1. Maybe.

        But just because it started as a dipshit disco, does not mean it hasn’t been deliberately choreographed and exploited since then. Dysfunctional government is its own reward.

      2. The Whitmer bitch is pure malevolence.

        1. No question about it. Malevolence is unquestionably a factor and the longer this continues, the more of a factor it will become.

    2. Actually, “the curve” does exist, but for some reason it’s never shown on the media. Actually, I know the reason, but I’m not telling.
      The important curves are shown on this website:
      Scroll about halfway down the page, to the bar graphs “Daily New Cases” and “Daily Deaths.” Notice how the numbers are falling. This is cause, not for rejoicing, but for cautious optimism. The shutdown, testing and treatment are starting to have an effect. If we can slack off on the regulations without having the numbers go up again, we’re winning.

      1. “…The shutdown, testing and treatment are starting to have an effect…”

        Sort of the way my rock is keeping the tigers away?
        Except my rock isn’t knee-capping an entire economy.

  18. This proposal might work, but it’s doubtful that our politicians and president are competent enough to pull it off.

    Let’s be honest, Ron. Our politicians couldn’t open a package of goldfish without screwing it up.

    1. and good luck getting the crumbs out of the carpet …

    2. Except Trump. Geraje assured us yesterday that Trump is the guy to vote for.

      1. not really a politician.

      2. I will make sure to write-in your mother. If anyone’s ever needed a win in a dark time, it’s her.

      3. Short of a libertarian candidate actually gaining enough popularity to win, Trump unfortunately is better than the alternative.

        1. You’re not thinking of the real crisis here… post offices. There is a dearth of post offices without names. Vote Amash.

      4. “Except Trump. Geraje assured us yesterday that Trump is the guy to vote for.”

        Are you here to prove how stoooopid lefties are? You’re doing great!

  19. This doesn’t even mention opening all the small businesses that were forced to close or getting all the millions of people who worked in them back to work. And do you think that once they start tracking every citizen’s movements under the pretense of public health, that it won’t become used for everything else they want to control?

    1. But as for me, give me liberty, or I will leave my phone at home!

      (just doesn’t have that ring, does it?)

  20. Ron my man, you are sadly climbing the totem pole of least favorite Reason writers of the ‘Pandemic Era’.
    With all the fancy data and techno-futurist remedies you report on you have failed to comment on the most striking aspect of the pandemic; the number of healthy cov-free Americans whose testicles have either shrunken or disappeared entirely.
    There’s no official study yet, but word on the street it’s out of control and spreading like crazy; roughly 8 in 10 US men have reported some degree of loss in testicular mass and nearly 4 in 10 are now legally classified as eunuchs.
    Would love to get your take on this once better data is available.

  21. I thought the goal of the lock downs was to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed. When did we change the goal to making sure no one would contract a virus no more lethal than the flu?

    1. If you’re hospitalized with COVID-19, there’s a 35% chance you’re coming out in a body bag. Already this year, COVID-19 has killed more people than the flu did in all of last year. Have some respect.

      1. “If you’re hospitalized with COVID-19, there’s a 35% chance you’re coming out in a body bag. Already this year, COVID-19 has killed more people than the flu did in all of last year.”

        So what?
        Grow a spine.

    2. If it was no more lethal than the flu then you wouldn’t have hospitals being overwhelmed.

  22. Such a pile of shit. Just because the word “Harvard” is in there we’re supposed to be impressed. 20 million tests a day? That production level is basically just science fiction at this point. And I’ll bet the Harvard plan assumes that the testing accuracy is much, much better than any test currently is or planned to be. Science fiction production levels of science fiction-quality tests. This fake news belongs on CNN or CBS.

  23. I guess Harvard spent the $9 million they just got to give us this plan? So generous of them.

  24. “To fully restart the U.S. economy by August, massive population testing for infections with the virus that causes COVID-19 is essential, according to the roadmap to pandemic resilience just issued today by the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.”

    A “Center for Ethics”, it says right there.
    So it’s bullshit, end-to-end.

  25. Wait, the market hasn’t satisfied the need for testing? Wow, it’s like Reason’s favorite President should have used the DPA months ago.

  26. Actually, it could be much simpler and cheaper than that.
    Take the proposal from the Kotlikoffs , who propose a solution that with luck could end the epidemic “perhaps in two weeks:”
    The plan is to test groups of 1,000 people at a time on the assumption that the infection rate hovers around one in 1,000. The one thousand swabs would be grouped for one test. A group that tests positive would then be divided into further fractions until the positive individuals are identified, and isolated. A group testing negative could all go back to work. False negatives would be corrected by daily testing, going to weekly and then monthly.
    This works in the lab, on mice, a colony of 45,000 of them.
    There are obvious logistical problems. Interesting idea, though.

  27. The reason this plan won’t work is that the US is no longer a manufacturing country. We’re failing to test fast enough because we don’t have enough cotton swabs. We don’t make our own and are waiting on China. We’re failing to test fast enough because we don’t have enough reagent. We don’t make our own and are waiting on Ireland. Similar delays apply to masks, gloves, gowns, and other medical supplies. When our politicians and business sold our manufacturing soul to foreign countries, they put our lives and health are risk and we are now paying the price.

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