John Oliver on Lack of Coronavirus Testing in U.S.: "What the F*** Happened?"

John Oliver - Season 7 - Episode 8 - Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of HBO

John Oliver on Sunday spent the main portion of his HBO show breaking down the lack of available coronavirus tests in the United States.

On Last Week Tonight, he started out by calling the coronavirus "the Timothée Chalamet of viruses, in that you'd barely had time to learn its name before suddenly it was fucking everywhere."

He then moved on to talk about the importance of testing, noting that test kits are "alarmingly scarce" in the U.S.

He quoted a story in The Atlantic calling "the testing fiasco the original sin of America's pandemic failure" because, Oliver added, "had testing caught the cases in this country early, we could have managed the virus through contract tracing and targeted quarantine, but that did not happen. So the virus spread widely, forcing us to use the blunt instrument of making everyone stay at home. 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."

He cited data saying that, at minimum, the U.S. needs to be testing 500,000 people a day, but a good target would be 35 million a day. Currently, only 200,000 people are being tested on a daily basis.

"We thought tonight would be a good time to ask, what the fuck happened?" Oliver said.

He broke down the two kinds of tests that are being developed: diagnostic tests, in which "a giant swab is stuffed up your nose," and antibody tests.

He noted that the World Health Organization recommended testing protocol earlier this year, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided to create its own test. However,  the tests didn't work properly due to contamination. On top of that, theCDC took weeks to create a workaround to make them usable, Oliver said. Meanwhile, private labs were hampered by bureaucratic regulations.

He cited data showing that only 472 people in total were tested in the U.S. during the same time frame that South Korea, with one-sixth the population of the U.S., had completed 55,000 tests.

As for antibody tests, there are 150 currently on the market, but none of them has been FDA approved. Paraphrasing an expert, Oliver said that "many of tests are garbage and over half of the positive tests right now would be wrong."

He added: "Look, 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, but again and again, the people in charge failed to prepare for the worst-case scenario and have been slow in fixing mistake. 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."