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The head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday that a new analysis shows the agency’s delayed rollout of coronavirus testing did not hinder the nation’s response to the pandemic.
The corona virus did not start spreading in the United States until late January or early February, the CDC analysis found, and it circulated at low levels for a good time.
As a result, access to previously widespread testing of the virus would not have been able to detect it, according to CDC Director Robert Redfield.
“It would really be like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Redfield told reporters in a briefing on the analysis. The study was published in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The CDC has come under intense criticism for losing the launch of testing for the new virus. The agency’s first test was inadequate, which delayed the availability of comprehensive testing. Many public health experts said the delay lost a crucial opportunity to prevent the virus from spreading in the United States.
More than 100,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, more than in any other country.
But other experts disputed Redfield’s claim of the test delay.
“No one is arguing that the United States should have done extensive testing in January,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote in an email to NPR. “However, we should have done targeted monitoring tests.”
She added: “We still don’t know exactly when COVID-19 was first introduced or how many were infected. The only way we would have known if this was if we had tested wider.”
The new CDC analysis was based on four lines of evidence, including an analysis of genetic sequences of the coronavirus, testing of samples collected as part of routine influenza surveillance, medical records in the emergency room, and cases of two people in California who were later discovered to have died from COVID-19 in early and mid-February.
Other researchers said the new analysis adds a little to the body of research on the origin of the coronavirus epidemic in the United States
“Not a huge amount of new science there,” said Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, in an interview with NPR.
Redfield also said the analysis supports the effectiveness of the agency’s system for detecting outbreaks of infectious diseases early.
“We had pretty good eyes on it,” Redfield said. “And the availability of having a diagnosis did not change our ability to perform surveillance.”
But Michael Mina, an infectious expert at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health expressed skepticism.
On the contrary, I think it shows the need for large-scale upgrades and improvements in the surveillance of infectious diseases in public health, Mina told NPR via email.