As hope builds over possible frequent at-home testing, experts call the idea a long shot.
Over the past few weeks, a Harvard scientist has made headlines for a bold idea to curb the spread of the coronavirus: rolling out antigen tests, a decades-old underdog in testing technology, to tens of millions of Americans for near-daily, at-home use.
These tests are not very good at picking up low-level infections. But they are cheap and convenient, and return results in minutes. Real-time information, argued Dr. Michael Mina, the Harvard scientist, would be far better than the long delays clogging the testing pipeline.
The fast-and-frequent approach to testing has captured the attention of scientists and journalists around the world, and that of top officials at the Department of Health and Human Services.
But more than a dozen experts said that near-ubiquitous antigen testing, while intriguing in theory, might not be effective in practice. In addition to posing huge logistical hurdles, they said, the plan hinges on broad buy-in and compliance from people who have grown increasingly disillusioned with coronavirus testing. The aim also assumes that rapid tests can achieve their intended purpose.
“We are open to thinking outside the box and coming up with new ways to handle this pandemic,” said Esther Babady, the director of the clinical microbiology service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. But she said antigen tests that could work at home had yet to enter the market.
Also, no rigorous study has shown that fast and frequent testing is better than sensitive but slower in the real world, she said. “The data for that is what’s missing.”
What has been put forth about the approach is “largely aspirational, and we need to check it against reality,” said Dr. Alexander McAdam, the director of the infectious diseases diagnostic laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital and an author of a recent report on pandemic testing strategies in The Journal of Clinical Microbiology.
Most of the coronavirus tests to date rely on a laboratory technique called PCR, long considered the gold standard because it can pick up even small amounts of genetic material from germs like the coronavirus.
But sputtering supply chains have compromised efforts to collect, ship and process samples for PCR tests, lengthening turnaround times. And the longer the wait, the less useful the result.
Thousands of police officers in riot gear filled the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday, stifling a protest over the postponement of legislative elections because of the pandemic and over China’s imposition of a national security law that gives the authorities sweeping new powers to pursue critics.
A large police presence was seen across the Kowloon Peninsula, where some activists had called for a march on the day the elections were initially scheduled to take place, despite social distancing rules that prohibit mass gatherings. Although occasional pro-democracy chants broke out as small groups wound through side streets, the number of demonstrators remained small compared with the huge crowds that gathered last year.
While Hong Kong has seen an increase in coronavirus cases over the past month, a recent wave has largely been brought under control. The city announced 21 new cases on Sunday, after more than a week of daily totals in the single or low double digits.
Hong Kong’s government, with the aid of a team from mainland China, began a universal testing program last week that it said was necessary to break hidden chains of virus transmission. Some activists and health care workers urged residents to boycott the plan, calling it a waste of resources motivated by a political desire to burnish the image of China’s central government.
Health officials said on Thursday that six positive cases had been found in the first batch of 128,000 tested in the program, including four people with previously confirmed cases who were treated in hospitals. Five more cases detected through the program were announced on Sunday. About one million people in the city of 7.5 million have registered for tests.
For many Americans, Labor Day is a goodbye to summer before children go back to school and cold weather arrives. But public health experts worry that in the midst of a pandemic, this weekend could result in disaster in the fall.
After the Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends, cases of Covid-19 surged around the United States after people held family gatherings or congregated in large groups.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said he wanted people to enjoy Labor Day weekend, but urged precautions to avoid a post-holiday spike in cases: Take the fun outdoors; avoid crowds, and keep gatherings to 10 people or fewer; and even outdoors, wear a mask and practice physical distancing if spending time with people outside your household.
“We see what happens over holiday weekends, and we want to make sure we don’t have an uptick,” Dr. Fauci said.
In terms of daily case counts, the United States is in worse shape going into Labor Day weekend than it was for Memorial Day weekend. The nation now averages about 40,000 new confirmed cases per day, up from about 22,000 per day ahead of Memorial Day weekend.
Dr. Fauci said that a spike in infections after Labor Day would make it far tougher to control the coronavirus’s spread in the fall as people head indoors.
Public health experts said it was more challenging to persuade people to curtail their Labor Day weekend plans compared with past holiday weekends, because so many people are feeling pandemic fatigue after six months of restrictions, closures and separation.
“People are getting tired of taking these precautions and of having their lives upended,” said Eleanor J. Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health. “They’re missing their friends and family, and everyone wishes things were back to normal. That’s totally understandable, but unfortunately we don’t get a say, really.”
Although she is one of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s most trusted confidants, she has been careful to distance herself from him when possible when it comes to the virus. Mr. López Obrador minimized the pandemic early on, questioning the science behind face masks and doing little testing. Seeking to avert economic pain, he has barely restricted travel.
Under his watch, Mexico has the fourth-highest coronavirus death toll worldwide.
As of Saturday, Mexico had recorded 67,326 coronavirus deaths, according to a Times database. But the health ministry also said that the country had recorded 122,765 more deaths than usual from the time the pandemic started until August, suggesting that its true toll could be much higher than reported.
When Mr. López Obrador was still kissing babies at rallies and comparing the virus to the flu, Ms. Sheinbaum was planning for a long pandemic. She pushed an aggressive testing and contact tracing campaign, and set up testing kiosks where people get swabbed for free.
She also required that everyone in Mexico City use face coverings on public transit, and wore a mask each time she addressed the news media. And when doctors told her the N95 masks the federal government had imported from China were too narrow to fit Mexican faces, she had a local factory converted into a mask-making operation.
For Ms. Sheinbaum, a scientist with a Ph.D. in energy engineering, aligning too closely with the president would mean ignoring the practices she knows are in the best interest of public health. Stray too far, and she risks losing the support of a political kingmaker who is said to be considering her — the first woman and first Jewish person elected to lead the nation’s capital — as the party’s next presidential candidate.
So far, her strategy has been to follow the science while refusing to criticize the president.
Other coronavirus news from around the world:
India on Sunday reported 90,632 new coronavirus cases, a global record. The coronavirus outbreak in India, which has had more than four million cases according to a Times database, has devastated an economy that until recently was booming.
Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, on Sunday extended its lockdown by two weeks until at least Sept. 28. The state of Victoria, the center of Australia’s worst outbreak, has been under lockdown since early August.
The virus is spiking around college campuses as students return.
Within days of the University of Iowa’s reopening, students were complaining that they couldn’t get coronavirus tests or were bumping into people who were supposed to be in isolation. Undergraduates were jamming sidewalks and downtown bars, masks hanging below their chins, never mind the city’s mask mandate.
Now, Iowa City is a full-blown pandemic hot spot — one of about 100 college communities around the United States where infections have spiked in recent weeks as students have returned for the fall semester. Although the rate of infection has bent downward in the Northeast, where the virus first peaked in the U.S., it remains high across many states in the Midwest and South — and evidence suggests that students returning to big campuses are a major factor.
In a New York Times review of 203 U.S. counties where students make up at least 10 percent of the population, about half have experienced their worst weeks of the pandemic since Aug. 1. In about half of those, figures showed that the number of new infections is currently peaking.
Despite the surge in cases, there has been no uptick in deaths in college communities, data shows. This suggests that most of the infections are stemming from campuses, since young people who contract the virus are far less likely to die than older people.
However, leaders fear that young people who are infected will contribute to the spread of the virus throughout the community.
The surge in infections reported by county health departments comes as many college administrations are also disclosing clusters on their campuses. The virus’s potential spread beyond campus greens has deeply affected the workplaces, schools, governments and other institutions of local communities.
The result is often an exacerbation of traditional town-and-gown tensions as college towns have tried to balance economic dependence on universities with visceral public health fears.
Around the globe, including in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, educators are struggling with how to facilitate distance learning during the pandemic. But in poorer countries like Indonesia, the challenge is particularly difficult.
In North Sumatra, students climb to the tops of tall trees a mile from their mountain village. Perched on branches high above the ground, they hope for a cellphone signal strong enough to complete their assignments.
The travails of these students and others like them have come to symbolize the hardships faced by millions of schoolchildren across the Indonesian archipelago. Officials have closed schools and brought in remote learning, but internet and cellphone service is limited and many students do not have smartphones and computers.
More than a third of Indonesian students have limited or no internet access, according to the Education Ministry, and experts fear that many students will fall far behind, especially in remote areas where online study remains a novelty.
Indonesia’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus have met with mixed results. As of Saturday, the country had 190,665 cases and 7,940 deaths. But testing has been limited and independent health experts say the actual number of cases is many times higher.
With the start of a new academic year in July, schools in virus-free zones were allowed to reopen, but these schools serve only a fraction of the nation’s students. As of August, communities in low-risk areas could decide whether to reopen schools, but few have done so.
“Students have no idea what to do, and parents think it is just a holiday,” said Itje Chodidjah, an educator and teacher trainer in Jakarta, the capital. “We still have lots of areas where there is no internet access. In some areas, there is even difficulty getting electricity.”
Reporting was contributed by Robert Gebeloff, Shawn Hubler, Danielle Ivory, Jennifer Jett, Natalie Kitroeff, Sarah Kliff, Tiffany May, Dera Menra Sijabat, Richard C. Paddock, Tara Parker-Pope, Austin Ramzy, Sarah Watson and Katherine J. Wu.