NPR Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota and author of several books on killer germs.

This segment aired on April 20, 2020.



(CNN) Infectious disease expert: We’re only in the second inning of the pandemic

Infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm, who has been warning for a decade and a half about the possibility of a global pandemic, said the coronavirus we’re fighting is at least as infectious as the one that killed an estimated 50 million people in the 1918 flu worldwide outbreak.

He said we’re only in the second inning of a nine-inning contest, with the possibility of as many as 800,000 deaths or more in the US over the next 18 months.

Osterholm also pointed to a shortage of chemical reagents that are necessary for widespread testing for the virus and said that the CDC’s low public profile in this pandemic in the United States has been a “tragedy.”

He decried the lack of a national long-term strategy for the pandemic and noted that there are real questions about the efficacy of the antibody tests that are being developed to detect if people have been exposed to the virus.

For example, everybody wants to do widescale coronavirus testing today. Talking heads without any experience in testing declare, “We’ll test millions of people each week, and then we’ll know who is infected and can follow up.” Very few people realize that the testing community in this country can’t do that. We don’t have adequate international manufacturing capacity and supply chains for reagents, the chemicals needed to run these tests.

The reagent capability — meaning securing those chemicals that are key for running many of these tests, whether you’re testing for virus or antibody — before the pandemic was more or less, adequately supported by a “garden hose of production.” Then Covid-19 came along and the Asian countries, specifically China, demanded a major increase in reagent supplies.

Finally, the whole world caught the pandemic, and now there are billions of people who need to be tested. We need a firehose to meet that demand but we can’t build reagent manufacturing facilities overnight. I urge that whatever we do going forward has to be based on reality. We’re not going to test your way out of this thing when we don’t have tests.

This virus could be in the air around infected people. It could be the same air we share and breathe. The more times you go into public spaces, the greater the likelihood you’re going to swap some air with somebody who has the virus and doesn’t even know it. Again, we have to be honest about that.

Does that mean you shouldn’t go to the grocery store? Well, I would say if you’re a person of high risk for a serious disease outcome, you should do everything you can to find a way to get those groceries delivered to you, even left outside your front door where you can go pick them up and not have to have contact with someone.

Now, for others who say, “Well, you know what? I’m at a relatively low risk of having a serious outcome if I do get infected,” you still have to think about whether you might be transmitting that infection to others. I think we have to be more honest and just say that, yes, breathing someone else’s air is going to put you at risk. On any one given day, how big of a risk is that? I don’t know.

We can’t stop living life. We have to move forward. But we must do so while thinking about how to get people back into society in a way that is thoughtful and takes into account every possible option to make sure people don’t get seriously ill and don’t subsequently die.


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