What a waste

This senior pup is looking at you

With the Omicron variant rampant, state and national governments are working to make quick, at-home antigen tests more readily available. They hope that identifying infection quickly and broadly will reduce infectious interactions and therefore the spread of the disease.

  • In late November, the state of New Hampshire, in partnership with the federal government, offered 800,000 free tests to its residents. The supply lasted less than one day.
  • The White House pledged to buy half a billion rapid tests to mail to US households. This was after pledging to distribute 50,000,000 free at-home tests through libraries and clinics.
  • The New York Times reported today that 405,000 new cases were reported on January 2. (This is likely an under-estimate, since those who test positive using at-home tests who aren’t re-tested by a reporting facility cannot be counted.) Over a year, 400,000/day is 146,000,000 positive tests.
  • A high positivity rate corresponds to testing only the sickest. Since that’s not adequate, consider the WHO’s guidance that countries with extensive testing should experience a positivity rate of 4% over a two-week period. This would require 10 million tests per day, or 3.65 billion tests in a year.

Administering that many tests requires testing inside homes and making the tests easily available for every person no matter where he or she lives. These tests must be packaged to arrive safely during transportation. They must have literature enclosed, in multiple languages and with visual aids, explaining how to administer the test successfully and providing guidance for positive test results. The reagent liquid for rapid antigen tests contains a toxic chemical, so the packaging must be robust enough to prevent leakage both before and after the test is taken.

The Abbott Binax NOW test kit, for example, weighs 98 grams. It contains 2 tests. The entire test is discarded once used, so two tests generate 98 grams of waste. Not so much, you think as you dispose of your test kit.

These numbers reflect only the waste of a 2-test kit, using Abbott’s product as a guideline. This excludes the waste of the packaging in which the tests are shipped (significantly more weight than the 98g paper package) as well as the waste from transportation. The very large numbers above are only a small fraction of the total waste incurred in this testing solution.

Even so, two hundred thousand tons (or 180 million kg) is an amount I can’t wrap my head around. It’s roughly equivalent to the weight of 120,000 cars. Imagine these cars were all placed on trailers that haul cars. Now imagine the resulting 13,250 trailers lined up on the highway, a length that spans 170 miles if parked nose to end or 923 miles of trailers driving one behind another down the highway – or about the distance between Springfield IL and New York City.  That’s the magnitude of waste generated using this solution to enable the truly great idea to test the entire population sufficiently to yield a 4% positivity rate.

This is what our technological society knows how to do. It engineers a laboratory process to make it available to everyone no matter where they are. The externalized costs remain unconsidered until we’ve filled up highways hauling mountains of waste.

Organic detection

Or, we could think about this problem differently. There’s an organic testing process that produces zero test waste and uses no toxic chemicals. In fact, the animals that perform this process think it’s fun, because their skills are recognized and rewarded.

To make this organic process available to all with no additional waste would require training the dogs we already have. It would be a sustainable approach for the long term.

The current dog population in the US is 76.8 million. To perform 10 million tests a day, only about 13% of them would have to be trained in scent detection of COVID-19. Training takes literally weeks.

Let’s solve that problem: how would it be possible to train dogs already in homes, and make them available for screening others in their communities? This is possible. Not every person who lives with a dog would have to participate: almost 90% of them aren’t needed for even this huge undertaking. Likely, more than are needed would be eager to offer their dogs’ skills to something meaningful to eradicate this virus.

Waste not, want not.

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