Enlarge /. Donald Trump speaks at a press conference in the rose garden on Monday, May 11.
Oliver Contreras / Sipa / Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Donald Trump believes America is the world champion when it comes to coronavirus testing.
"Within a few months, we have developed a test capacity that is unparalleled worldwide and unparalleled, and it is not even scarce," Trump said in a press conference on Monday. He noted that daily tests rose from around 150,000 a day three weeks ago to around 300,000 a day this week, and that the United States was on the right track to surpass 10 million tests this week (we reached this milestone on Thursday reached).
Trump is correct in one respect: the United States has done more corona virus tests than any other country, with the possible exception of China. But with most other measures, the American testing effort is mediocre at best.
Let's start with the per capita test capacity. In his briefing on Monday, Trump said: "We test more people per capita than South Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Sweden, Finland and many other countries." It is true – hardly – that the US is doing better than these countries.
At the beginning of the corona virus crisis, the United States was a test delay. Regulatory problems slowed the development of tests in February, and as a result we had a lot of catching up to do in late March and April. But in the past month, the US has surpassed a number of other countries per capita.
However, the US is far from leading the world in per capita testing. Denmark, Russia, Australia and several other countries do more tests per person than the United States.
The bigger problem, however, is that per capita testing isn't the best way to assess a country's testing performance. Ultimately, what matters is not tests per person, but tests per person that are positive for COVID-19 because you need a high ratio to get a clear picture of the progress of the pandemic. And in that regard, the US is still way behind:
The United States is the world leader in the absolute number of coronavirus tests, with more than 10 million completed. But we are also the world leader in confirmed coronavirus cases with more than 1.4 million. If you divide 10 million by 1.4 million, you get about seven tests per coronavirus case. Other countries have had far more testing capacity in the course of their epidemics.
A lack of testing capacity particularly hindered our efforts to combat COVID in March and early April. At that time, testing focused on severe COVID-19 cases and healthcare workers as we didn't have enough tests for others. People with milder COVID-like symptoms were often sent home without a test, and there was little or no spare capacity to test friends, family, and co-workers who had been exposed to COVID-19 patients.
Fortunately, America's testing rate has improved over time. For example, on Thursday there were 366,944 test results that produced 25,203 new confirmed cases. That is a ratio of more than 14 tests per confirmed case. In other words, about 6.9 percent of the coronavirus tests performed yesterday were positive.
This is a good sign, as extensive testing is helpful to control the spread of the coronavirus – especially when some states begin to relax the quarantine restrictions. But it's not time to declare victory. The countries with the best track records in the fight against corona virus – countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand – have done dozens of tests for each infection. Since many states are loosening their blocking rules, there is also a risk that the infections will increase again. In this case we want to be ready with enough free test capacity.