The problem, then and now, is that reality doesn’t often behave like a simulation, and that widespread, rapid COVID testing—at least as it’s been practiced in Germany, the U.K., and other countries—hasn’t really quashed anything. That’s not because the tests are failing as a diagnostic tool for individuals and high-risk groups. Rather, we don’t have compelling real-world evidence that using them on a massive scale would change the course of the pandemic.
Let’s focus on Germany, the recent poster child for rapid-test ubiquity. A September newsletter from The New York Times titled “Where Are the Tests?” opened, typically of the genre, with a photo of a German swab site, and it featured a chart contrasting Germany’s low COVID mortality rate with the growing death count in the U.S. In a September Stat essay, Daniel Oran and Eric Topol cited Germany’s efforts too, saying rapid tests could help reduce the spread of the virus so much that it “becomes more a nuisance than remaining a national emergency.” At the time, case rates in Germany were indeed much lower than those in the U.S. But two months later, the German health minister declared a national emergency: Infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have skyrocketed there since October. The country now has a higher rate of infection than the United States suffered during this fall’s peak.
I’ve noticed no change in tone from the rapid-testing advocates who were so eager to laud the German model. An article published just last week by Yahoo News, headlined “Omicron Variant Shows Need for Rapid COVID Tests,” bizarrely suggested that “a test-fast, test-often approach has helped Germany return to normal life” (while linking to a New York Times story from June). Life is anything but normal in Germany right now.