One of the most important outstanding questions about coronavirus is how many of us had it but never knew it. The answer will reveal for the first time how deadly Covid-19 really is. And it will help us evaluate the drastic measures taken to close down much of society. Today, we get the inside track on one of the earliest studies now underway to get at the information.
Sharyl: You said you haven't really taken a day off since mid-March?
Jay Bhattacharya: No, not since I guess the shelter in place order and the couple of days before that. I basically, I think this is the most important thing I'm ever going to work on.
Sharyl: Jay Bhattacharya is a doctor, economist, and professor of medicine at Stanford university in California. While much of the world was clamoring for tests to see who was sick with coronavirus, he began wondering how many people had already had silent cases and recovered.
Sharyl: Can you just tell me in simple terms, once there was a coronavirus outbreak, how that became something that you started to research about?
Bhattacharya: I figured, okay, if they're just checking for people with the virus, they're going to be missing people who had the infection and were, were cured or you know, just they cleared the virus like as if it were a cold. I mean, not, not everybody goes to the ICU or dies from it. And what I noticed was most of the discussions around that ignored that fact, that people who have that, they have evidence of that in their blood. There's, there's, there's antibodies you could use that might protect you from it. To me that was the first order question. As soon as I saw, started seeing the data, I thought: Okay, how many people are there like this?
Sharyl: To answer that question, he put together a landmark study in three short weeks. All he needed were thousands of antibody tests from the only country making them at the time: China.
Two and a half weeks ago, he and his team got the tests. They began collecting blood from thousands of Californians at grocery stores in Santa Clara.
Sharyl: Can you describe just briefly what the parameters of the test are? What, what exactly are you doing?
Bhattacharya: Basically it's a, it's a fingerprick test. You do a little finger prick and then volunteer folks in the labs here offered to like actually run the test for us.
The results could produce the first true coronavirus death rate: the number who have died among all who had coronavirus, even those who had no symptoms. Until now, many have presented the public with much higher, inaccurate death rates calculated by deaths among only sick patients who tested positive.
Sharyl: So it looks like the curves they were showing us, that said stuff like, “zero cases in March,” well there probably were cases, we just hadn't tested them?
Bhattacharya: We are making incredibly consequential policy decisions on the basis of almost no relevant evidence. We don't know how far the disease has spread, we don't actually know when it first started in the country. So what we've done is we've shut essentially the entire economy down on the basis of these models that are populated with numbers that are not supported by data, by hard data, I mean of course it is supported by some data, but the data involves some guesses that I am not comfortable making.
Sharyl: Are you a coronavirus doubter? Are you somebody who is trying to deny the coronavirus?
Bhattacharya: No, I'm not a doubter. It's a very serious illness and it's a, obviously, as I said, the most important epidemiological event in my lifetime. I, I don't think I'm a doubter. The question is, what is it? What I want to know is what is it really? What is this epidemic about? Like what are the parameters of it? That's what I've been focused on.
Sharyl: Dr. Bhattacharya says soon, accurate, individual antibody tests given by your doctors will help determine who can go back to work, with minimal risk of getting infected again or spreading coronavirus to others. But his study is looking at a bigger picture, digging into widely publicized predictions he questioned early on.
Bhattacharya: So in the back of my head I have this idea that there's going to be the great depression, this great global depression, and we've induced it. And who will it hurt? I was born in India. It's gonna hurt poor Indians. It's going to hurt poor Africans. It's going to hurt the poor in the United States. So if I have that in the back of my head, I kind of have to speak out. Right? Is this the right policy? Is it worth it? Well, it may be worth it if the disease models are right and there's 10 tens of millions of people are going to die for millions and millions of people are going to die from the coronavirus. Yeah, maybe it's worth it. But if that's not right, then we, we have, I think the certainty of huge numbers of people their lives irreparably damaged by this policy. That I think we have to consider.
Santa Clara was first, but Dr. Bhattacharya is also doing antibody studies in Los Angeles and planning them in multiple other U.S. cities. Meantime, dozens of companies are seeking FDA approval for antibody tests to be given to individual Americans in part to find out who’s safe to go back to work. Some of these tests are expected to be widely available any day.