This was one of the greatest and most inspiring achievements of mankind – the Apollo 11 mission to land a group of humans on the lunar surface and bring them safely back to Earth.
Nearly 50 years later, as the world struggles with Covid-19, there are some who look to the moon again for inspiration.
Operation Moonshot is the UK government’s ambitious plan to test tens of billions of pounds – many people at once, regardless of whether they have symptoms or not.
Boris Johnson, who is already piloting in Liverpool, sees the project as a return to normal life, allowing people to go to concerts or participate in football matches of a kind not seen since March this year.
When our closest neighbors are experimenting with group testing, it is only natural that we wonder if this will work in Ireland.
The idea is quite straightforward: the goal is to test the entire population of a city, city, or university as close as possible.
Examination of all makes it possible to identify even asymptomatic cases. Those who test positive should isolate themselves for at least 10 days. In principle, it will provide a kind of firebreak, remove the virus from the community and stop the transmission – while allowing those who have not tested positive to move more freely with fewer restrictions.
This is not the first time that mass testing has been deployed: China has tested the population in several cities, while Slovakia has completed an attempt to test the entire country at once (in the end, two-thirds of the population was able to test two and only 1% tested positive).
The key to the scheme is speed. In Ireland, we only use PCR testing for Covid-19. They are the most accurate tests available, but they need to be processed in a laboratory – this can take time. The Liverpool pilot still uses the PCR, but with less accurate lateral-flow testing (a testing kit similar to a pregnancy test). In Slovenia, they use fast-turning antigen testing kits that do not need to be processed in the lab.
Accuracy trading is worth doing. “Speed is increasing – so you can reach more people,” Linda Bold, a professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, told Prime Time.
“As we move through this pandemic, I’m sure many countries around the world will see this adoption, especially for the population who want to get test results faster – for example, health care workers and returning students.”
Currently, Test & Trace is one of Ireland’s key strategies to control the spread of Covid-19. There are currently seven contact-tracking centers across the country, with teams committed to liaising with close contacts in confirmed cases, advising them on testing or self-isolation to prevent further infections.
As Contact Tracer in Galway told Prime Time this week, it’s a system without challenges. While most people are happy to follow this, there is still a minority who say they cannot isolate themselves – or not.
Paul Gillen, who works on HSE’s national tracking team, says they can often be heard driving on the motorway or having dinner with family and friends.
There are others who do not appear for an experiment. Another problem with contact tracers is the number of people who are infected with the virus but have no symptoms. They may never get a test, so they are unlikely to isolate themselves.
About 30% to 40% of positive cases are asymptomatic, according to HSE West’s Director of Public Health. Breda Smith tells prime time.
If they are not identified as closely related to an existing case, very little can be done to control their movements or prevent the virus from spreading.
Asymptomatic cases are usually less common than symptomatic cases, but this does not mean that they cannot spread the virus. Mass testing is a way to eliminate asymptomatic cases.
In that sense, the problems that contact tracers experience with people who are unwilling to follow public health advice also apply to mass testing. In a Liverpool pilot, the test is completely voluntary. In Slovakia, this is voluntary, but those who do not volunteer need to isolate themselves as tested positive.
Pete Lun, a behavioral economist with ESRI, says the key to successful mass testing is all in the message – people need to be convinced that volunteering for testing will work and that it will lead to greater success.
“You ‘re able to connect with people, simply put, it’s good for everyone to do this,” Lun says.
“If they can convince us that this is in the public interest, they are more likely to work together.”
A harmonious national identity will also help.
“You feel like a community where more people can come together for a common goal, you ‘re going to get the best compliance you can get, the best engagement you can get. We have an advantage as a nation,” Lun said.
But Ireland’s sense of national identity may not be enough to ensure success on its own. There is a reason to label this plan as “a moonshot”: there is no guarantee it will work, and it comes with a great price. In the UK, Operation Moonshot is estimated to cost up to $ 40 billion – more than the annual budgets of many major government departments.
He said the success of efforts in other countries (or something else) should be measured before spending money that can be spent elsewhere. Smith tells prime time.
“We need to do a pros and cons analysis and look at how our resources are being spent,” she says.
“Is this really a strategy to take from the resources needed for our serial testing in nursing homes? As a strategy, this should definitely be explored, but we should definitely adopt an evidence – based approach and see what’s the best option for us in Ireland.”
View Reporter Connor Wilson and producer Aaron Hefernan’s report on Operation Moonshot tonight in prime time RTÉ One at 9.35pm.
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