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Why the COVID-19 Vaccine Doesn’t Remove the Need for Mass Rapid Testing

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As 2020 comes to an end many countries are struggling with a second wave of the devastating coronavirus pandemic that came to define the last year. But 2021 arrives with some hope as at least three different vaccines are set to become available over the coming months.

The first, by Pfizer and BioNTech, has already started to be rolled out across the UK after approval by regulators. The vaccine, which is up to 95 percent effective against COVID-19, was given to more than 130,000 people in the first week of the UK’s vaccination program. The US recently became the second country to grant approval.

Trials have shown the vaccine developed by Moderna could offer up to 94.5 percent protection, and one developed by Oxford University/AstraZeneca could be between 70 and 90 percent effective.

So, that’s it then? We have three effective vaccines and the pandemic will soon be over?

Not quite. Of course, vaccination is the weapon that will ultimately defeat this pandemic, but getting there will take much time and effort - rolling out vaccination programs to billions of people across the globe is an unprecedented logistical feat that will take many months.

Until then there will still be a need for other measures to control the virus, including rapid diagnostic testing and screening.  And more specifically, digitized rapid testing made better with data, which is critical in proactively managing both chronic and infectious diseases.

Rapid mass testing is both effective and widely accepted by people

Mass rapid testing has been proposed as a strategy to help life return to normal and avoid further lockdowns. Lateral flow rapid diagnostic tests, in particular, are being held up as the key because of their unmatched speed and high accuracy in detecting even those without COVID-19 symptoms.

Several countries have already made use of mass testing to screen their populations for COVID-19. In Slovakia, where more than 5 million tests were completed by trained medical staff in October and November, infections decreased by 58 percent.

While experts are uncertain how much the drop was due to the testing or other measures rolled out at the same time, they conclude that mass testing can have an impact. The UK has also held mass testing programs in cities and other urban areas, starting with Liverpool, but the results were less clear, with many experts blaming the fact the tests were self-administered.

However, researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and University of Colorado Boulder have concluded that regular mass rapid testing could eliminate the virus “within weeks”.

Lead author Daniel Larremore, an assistant professor of computer science at CU Boulder, said: “Our big picture finding is that, when it comes to public health, it’s better to have a less sensitive test with results today than a more sensitive one with results tomorrow.”

The problem

The problem currently is that results data sits in static silos on a spreadsheet, a piece of paper or on rapid tests. The only way to get on top of this pandemic is to start gathering and moving data at speed so that scientists and governments can act on it.

Using mobile technology to digitize and consolidate test data is our only way to proactively detect, manage and control outbreaks and pandemics. Presenting, mapping and sharing data easily means governments can create better strategies and policies in real time, so we won’t have to shut down entire economies each time a new disease spreads to humans.

The introduction of an effective vaccine will have a huge impact, but it won’t remove the need for data-driven testing. Vaccination is not a panacea for this pandemic. Until a sufficient number of people have developed immunity to COVID-19, immunization will have to be run alongside testing to keep the disease at bay.

Everyone is looking forward to the day life can return to normal. But there’s no single magic bullet that will allow us to do that. Therefore, until that day comes, health agencies, vaccine providers and diagnostic testing companies need a way of seeing the bigger picture - and the only way to get there fast is with comprehensive datasets.