Bill Gates's foundation to home-deliver and help process coronavirus tests for people in Seattle showing symptoms

Terrific news, although it’s not clear (a) when the program will launch even though time is now of the essence and (b) how far it can be scaled up as the disease spreads in the Seattle area. If there are, say, 1,500 people currently infected and the rate of infection doubles each week, can they manage 1,500 new deliveries the next week? How about 3,000 deliveries the week after? 6,000 the week after that? Flu season is tailing off so hopefully the number of flu patients wasting tests in the mistaken belief that they have COVID-19 will start tailing off too, leaving researchers with a sample composed mostly of people who really do have coronavirus.

Let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth, though. Any attempt at testing is better than what we have now.

Where government leaves a vacuum, benevolent plutocrats fill the breach.

Testing for the novel coronavirus in the Seattle area will get a huge boost in the coming weeks as a project funded by Bill Gates and his foundation begins offering home-testing kits that will allow people who fear they may be infected to swab their noses and send the samples back for analysis.

Results, which should be available in one to two days, will be shared with local health officials who will notify those who test positive. Via online forms, infected people can answer questions about their movements and contacts, making it easier for health officials to locate others who may need to be tested or quarantined, as well as to track the virus’ spread and identify possible hot spots…

The expanded testing program to deliver kits to the public will be supported by a separate group within the Gates Foundation. When the system is up and running, people in the Seattle area who think they might be infected with SARS-CoV-2, the scientific name for the new coronavirus, can fill out a questionnaire online. If their symptoms are consistent, they can request a test kit, which will be delivered to their home within two hours. The swabs will be collected and delivered to a lab for processing.

I assume there’ll be a hotline you can call too, as older people are more at risk from the disease and also less proficient at filling out online forms. If you have to go to a website to get tested then the riskiest patients won’t be.

The great innovation here, obviously, is facilitating testing without requiring people to visit a doctor’s office, which will spread contagion. The University of Washington is already doing that with medical workers, setting up a tent at one of their facilities were medical personnel can drive up, roll down their windows, get a nasal swab, and have results within a day or so, all without ever getting out of their cars. South Korea’s been doing drive-through testing for people too and has a very low fatality rate from cases there (so far).

A question: How helpful is it to trace people’s contacts when there are 5,000 cases in circulation, say? Obviously it can help to some degree: If a kid tests positive then everyone at his or her school can be notified. But as I understand it, tracing is useful mainly as a strategy to try to contain the disease when the numbers are still low, e.g., a few dozen cases. We’re not really doing containment anymore. We’re doing mitigation.

Presumably just being able to “see” hundreds or thousands of cases on a map will lead to more useful mitigation strategies. If an unusually high number of test requests come from a single neighborhood, that entire neighborhood may need to be locked down and unaffected residents there warned of the much higher risk of contagion.

Here’s some good news from China, of all places — with the usual caveat that it requires you to take the word of Beijing’s totalitarian government:

The word “confirmed” is doing some work in that second tweet, obviously, as U.S. cases are certainly higher than the few hundred we know about right now and Iran’s cases are probably way, way higher than that graph shows. Our best hopes for accurate data right now are South Korea and Italy. The trend in the former looks somewhat encouraging, the trend in the latter less so.

Exit question: Can we get some more plutocratic action in solving on this problem? There must be something someone can say to Elon Musk, etc, to shift their attention momentarily away from competing with each other via spaceships to competing with each other on COVID-19 testing and treatment. Lord Bezos could maybe figure out a way to take this idea and run with it, offering free two-day delivery and results to Prime customers through Amazon. Better yet, imagine how much Mike Bloomberg would enjoy showing Trump up by spending a few billion to solve America’s testing shortage while Trump’s CDC flounders.