Two academic brothers have a plan for putting the country back to work in just weeks

Apr 6, 2020 by

Two brother academics believe they have a plan for getting healthy people back to work without aggravating the pandemic.


Two brother academics believe they have a plan for getting healthy people back to work without aggravating the pandemic.

Dr. Laurence Kotlikoff, a onetime economic adviser to Ronald Reagan and former presidential candidate, has outlined a plan for testing huge groups of people at a time for the coronavirus, allowing authorities to isolate cases and permit others to go back to work.

Dr. Michael Kotlikoff, the provost of Cornell University, says he has put the basic plan into place in a mouse colony of 45,000 and successfully wiped out a viral infection.

“This is actually a prescription for better health,” said Laurence Kotlikoff. “We know who’s sick right away. We quarantine them. So this is a formula for dramatically reducing the deaths and morbidity and also getting the economy back on its feet. This is as close to a no-brainer as I’ve seen in my entire career.”

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The country is in desperate need of a plan to restart commerce without risking hundreds of thousands of lives and overwhelming the healthcare system. Many millions of workers, especially those in service industries, have been sent home in the past few weeks, raising the specter of an economic calamity in the case that the spread of the virus isn’t limited.

The plan is to test groups of 1,000 people at a time on the assumption that the infection rate hovers around one in 1,000. Health officials could then flag infections in the sample and narrow them down until it becomes clear who the infected individuals are so they can be quarantined.

The brothers believe that the plan would allow the economy to get back to work within two weeks of being implemented.

They have laid out a version of the idea, which would have the government test all workers on designated days. Officials would swab all workers twice. The first swab would be pooled into groups of 1,000 and tested immediately. If that test turned up negative, all 1,000 would go to work. If the pooled sample tested positive, the second swap for all the workers would be tested individually, allowing officials to determine which individuals were affected, quarantine them, and allow the others to go back to work.

Such an approach would allow for testing the whole country while using far fewer tests, which are still in short supply.

Volunteers or even military personnel could go to neighborhoods in mobile testing vehicles, go door to door, and collect nasal swabs from people who live there. The plan would also rely on using test kits with a fast turnaround time. Luckily, more and more medical technology companies are introducing tests that can produce results in under an hour.

People who wanted to go to work would have to submit to being tested and would be given a green bracelet indicating they were virus-free. “If they don’t have the bracelet, they can’t go to a restaurant or to work,” Laurence said. “The green bracelet would fade to red every week when it’s time to get tested again.”

Ideally, testing would be conducted every day at first because false negatives are to be expected. Daily testing would become weekly testing and then, in time, monthly testing.

The scheme has worked in the lab scenario devised by Michael Kotlikoff, a veterinarian and professor of molecular physiology. Researchers in his lab quickly developed a test similar to the one that is used to diagnose the coronavirus, pooled a portion of the samples from mice, and tested groups of about 500 at a time. Most of the samples were negative, and for the ones that were positive, researchers tested the remaining individual samples and quickly identified the roughly 12 carriers of the virus.

“This would require a national or state-by-state mobilization but is achievable with the testing capacity for COVID-19 that has recently come online,” Michael Kotlikoff said.

In the real world, though, compliance would be key. A majority of the population, about 70%-80%, would have to take part in order for the operation to be a success. People would likely be incentivized to participate with the promise of returning to work or leaving isolation sooner, Michael Kotlikoff added.

“In practice, however, there will not be full compliance, and there will be false negatives, so you would, like, want to do this once or twice more before returning people to work, but it could be done quickly,” Michael said.

Laurence, a Boston University economics professor, has spent years devising unconventional policies to address intractable problems. He ran for president in 2012 and 2016 as a third-party candidate on platforms meant to be nonpartisan, economics-informed responses to problems such as the federal debt, high healthcare costs, and climate change.

Now, outside-the-box proposals are needed more than ever as the country finds a problem without precedent in the pandemic.

Most of the country is effectively shut down, and the Trump administration has advised people to avoid groups and nonessential work for at least the next month on the advice of public health officials, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leader on the White House coronavirus task force.

Yet neither the administration nor anyone else has yet put forward a realistic plan for easing restrictions.

“What we have in place now is to quarantine basically the entire country for another month. And then, we’re not going to be in another position then than we are today,” Laurence Kotlikoff said. “Four weeks from now, when we put someone out in the wild, they will get infected, and we go back to January 20.”

Each day of lockdown, meanwhile, exacts an enormous price on the households who’ve had someone put out of work.

The brothers’ plan would generate a “much quicker reopen if you could identify the asymptomatic infected people and quarantine them,” Michael Kotlikoff said. “Theoretically, one could immediately return to normal function.”

Source: Two academic brothers have a plan for putting the country back to work in just weeks

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