John Oliver returned to Last Week Tonight from a brief hiatus Sunday night for another examination of America’s botched response to coronavirus, which has now claimed over 65,000 lives in the US in three months, more than the Vietnam war – a “grim” milestone, said Oliver, which is why it was so “jarring to see Jared Kushner and his resting ‘Do you know who my father is?’ face basically declare victory over the virus.” Last Wednesday, Kushner told Fox & Friends that the federal government’s response to the virus was a “great success story” that would have the country “really rocking again” by July.
“Oh, it will be ‘really rocking again,’ will, it Jared?” Oliver scoffed. “It’s incredible to see someone with the skin of a newborn baby birthed in a tub of Neutrogena talk like a middle-age dad desperately trying to connect with his teenage son. But before we can celebrate Jared’s ‘great success story,’ and get back to our ‘rockin’ selves,’ we badly need to work out how we can reopen parts of society.”
Numerous experts say that means one thing: testing. “In managing a pandemic, there is almost nothing more important than widespread, effective testing,” Oliver explained. And yet tests have been scarce in the US since the beginning, the “original sin” of America’s pandemic failure, as it could’ve allowed containment of the virus through contact tracing and targeted quarantines had widespread testing been available earlier.
Experts agree that, as Oliver explained, “a lack of testing goes to the very heart of how we got into this situation and the truth is, broad testing is our only safe way out of it”. The lowest estimate for the volume of mass testing required now to safely reopen is 500,000 tests a day; a good target would be 35m a day. (The US is currently averaging 200,000 tests a day). “Think of it like this: if our goal was to eat an Italian dinner, we’re currently stuck in traffic on the way to an Olive Garden,” Oliver said. “We’re not even halfway to arriving at the worst place that technically qualifies.”
Which was why Oliver devoted the evening to ask: “What the fuck happened?” First, there was an initial failure to deliver diagnostic tests, which tell you if you have the virus right, when cases fist appeared in the US in February. The CDC decided to make their own testing kits, but as they were shipped around the country, it was revealed that chemical contamination during manufacturing rendered the tests useless. Even worse, the CDC took weeks to come up with a work-around. The US lost nearly an entire month of time to viably test people, which Oliver described as “absolutely catastrophic”.
Private labs tried to step in, but outdated regulations and bureaucratic red tape kept them from producing their own tests. It wasn’t until the end of February that the FDA allowed private labs to develop their own tests, but “by that point, a whole month had gone by and incredibly, we’d only tested – in the whole country – 472 people,” Oliver explained. South Korea, which had its first confirmed case on the same day as the US, had tested 55,000 people by that point.
“For too long, the US response seemed to be characterized by an arrogant belief that for some reason, coronavirus was never going to come to America because, I guess, it just wouldn’t dare,” Oliver said. “And unfortunately, we’re currently living in the consequences of those early failures.” The slow rollout of testing coincided with crippled supply lines from China, leading to shortages of testing components such as swabs and chemical reagents. Trump, who initially dismissed pleas from state governors for more tests, eventually invoked the Defense Production Act to manufacture testing supplies, but it was too late. “Timing is absolutely everything here,” Oliver explained, and tests were heavily rationed.
Which makes it especially frustrating, Oliver continued, that in his victory lap interview, Kushner praised the administration’s “quick” response as “truly extraordinary”.
“No it fucking isn’t, Jared,” replied an infuriated Oliver. “Taking months to do what other countries did in weeks is not extraordinary. The only thing that’s extraordinary here is that the most punchable face in America somehow looks like it’s never been touched by human hands. Does it just absorb fists like a bowl of heavy cream? What’s your secret, you translucent sociopath?”
Meanwhile, antibody tests, which show if you have some trace of the virus from earlier exposure, are proliferating despite inaccurate and dubiously effective results. There are now over 150 different antibody tests on the markets, none of which have been approved by the FDA, and, to paraphrase an expert, “many of tests are garbage and over half of the positive tests right now would be wrong,” said Oliver.
In sum, America’s testing capacity today is simply not enough, and though Oliver conceded that “some confusion is inevitable when a new disease starts spreading its way around the world, and it’s not like rolling out testing on this kind of scale was ever going to be easy,” the people in charge repeatedly “failed to prepare for the worst-case scenario and have been slow in fixing mistakes. All of which means in May, we are still playing catch-up in the middle of a pandemic, which in turn, means thousands upon thousands of people dying preventable deaths.”
“So if this is a great success story for anyone,” he concluded, “it’s for the fucking coronavirus.”