How a Blood Test Can Save the Global Economy

Tempering the Impact of COVID-19

April 9, 2020 – The COVID-19 crisis has led to an extraordinary shutdown of the global economy —something that seemed inconceivable just a few months ago. Governments had a difficult choice as the threat of the pandemic grew — issue stay-at-home and lockdown orders to ‘flatten the curve’ to stem the spread of the virus, which would save lives but risk plunging the economy into recession, or embrace ‘herd immunity’ to shorten the duration of the crisis and keep the economy humming along, but risk mass casualties. It was a difficult choice, and in the end most politicians opted for the ‘flatten the curve’ route to save lives. Now that we’ve turned the lights off on the economy, how do we flip the switch and turn it back on? How do we shift from stay-at-home and lockdown to getting back to work without spreading the virus again?

One strategy is to identify the people who are non-contagious so they can safely get back to work and engage in social activity. Testing people for SAR-CoV19 (the virus that causes COVID-19) to see if they have the virus has been difficult, as there is a limited supply of testing kits, the results are not immediate, and testing needs to be done by a healthcare professional. False negatives have also been an issue as samples can easily be improperly collected as the testing requires a swab through the nose towards the back of the throat, which is uncomfortable for patients. Another strategy is to see if a person has built up an immunity to the virus by testing for the presence of an antibody in their blood. This is can be done via test kits that analyze a drop of blood and can be administered in hospitals, pharmacies, or a patient’s home. These test kits offer results in 15 minutes, are inexpensive, and are easily scaled. We believe antibody testing will be the key to getting the economy back up and running.

To judge the effectiveness of using antibody diagnostics, we modeled a range of scenarios reflecting the potential number and timing of which previously infected (and now assumed immune) patients with SARS-CoV2 can return to the workplace in the U.S. We anticipate there will be ample volume of test kits available in the U.S. to test 60% of the working-age population by the end of April and 95% by end of May. We therefore estimate that 90 million sidelined U.S. workers could return to their workplace as early as mid-May, stabilizing the economy and hopefully warding off additional negative economic consequences like a prolonged recession or depression.

Although there will be challenges to getting workers back on the job, there are significant benefits to global GDP to identifying non-contagious individuals. Using scenarios based on the cost to global GDP growth of social distancing and work disruption (we use international and travel disruptions as a proxy here), we find if non-contagious workers are effectively identified, the contraction of global GDP could be contained from a 7% contraction (which assumes a 100% collapse of both domestic and international social activity) to a contraction of only 2% of global GDP (assuming only a 30% reduction in domestic and international social activity).