Disease expert says COVID testing not as important as immunity

A program for ordering free COVID-19 tests from the federal government was suspended on Friday, as funding for the program ended. But an infectious disease expert says mass testing isn’t as necessary as immunity.

“Most experts have, at this point, said mass testing is probably not going to change anything,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor at the University of California San Francisco Medical School. “It is not as important to gather data on mass testing, like it was early.”

She said that one should stay home if they experience COVID symptoms, but the public health focus, at this point, is on immunity.

“Prior to this, we had to mass test because we didn’t have any immunity. We didn’t have any vaccines, our older populations were very at risk for getting sick,” Gandhi told WTOP.

“After vaccines, the entire point is to try to give us, not an external way of protecting ourselves — like a masks or a test — but an internal way, which is immunity,” she said.

“And that is what we’re getting. We’re getting it from natural infection. We’re getting it from more safe vaccination.”

She says, especially for older people, the best next step is to get the newly released boosters that target the omicron BA. 5 and BA. 4 variants in order to maintain immunity.

On Thursday the CDC endorsed the updated boosters that they say will provide immunity against the omicron strain, which is dominant strain circulating around the world.  

“Our old boosters are directed against what we called the ancestral or original, sometimes called the Wuhan-Hu-1 strain. That strain is gone,” said Dr. Gandhi.

The CDC has said that, because they are outdated, old vaccines would no longer be administered as boosters. They will still be used for the initial dose.

“We don’t have any clinical data on these boosters because the FDA said, ‘you don’t need to give me clinical data. Just tell me if the antibodies are increased, if you give a B.A. 5 booster,'” she said. “So they’ve done the studies in mice and B.A. 5 antibodies are very high.”  

Gandhi said people over 60 are most at risk from severe disease and still benefit the most from these boosters.

“Older people have always, in infectious disease, needed boosters, needed more protection,” she said. “So I would concentrate on that over 60 population.”

She pointed to a recent study that shows 80% of American kids have been infected with COVID at least once.

“They are not needing boosters again and again because they have young immune systems,” said Dr. Ghandi.

Washington, D.C.’s health department said that both the omicron boosters, and the seasonal flu shot, will be available on Sept. 7 at COVID centers throughout the city.

In Maryland, the new omicron focused boosters are already positioned around the state for a rollout after Labor Day.

Virginia has ordered 141,700 doses of the new vaccines that will be shipped to local health districts. Residents can register at Vaccinate.Virginia.gov, contact their call center at 877-829-4682, or ask their health care provider.

Luke Lukert

Since joining WTOP Luke Lukert has held just about every job in the newsroom from producer to web writer and now he works as a full-time reporter. He is an avid fan of UGA football. Go Dawgs!

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