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Bill Gates: 'We're in big trouble' until the U.S. has better coronavirus testing

Microsoft (MSFT) founder and billionaire Bill Gates warns that America needs to get its coronavirus testing sorted quickly — until then, “we’re in big trouble.”

Coronavirus in the U.S. is “still completely mis-prioritized,” Gates told CNBC on Thursday. 

“The natural thing would be to do like South Korea did, and create a unified system — that we haven't gotten any interest from the federal level,” Gates said. “The thinking is to create a website that you go in and enter your situation and it would give you a priority number, and then hopefully all the people who control the capacity limit the priority level that they accept, so they're giving these very quick results and to the right people.”

And “until we have that, we're in big trouble,” he stressed, “because as a percentage of 330 million [Americans], we're not going to be able to test many people … [and] we need to know that number because that deeply affects rebounds when opening up. And there is some data that suggests it's not a gigantic number but very, very important to pin that down.”

Microsoft principle founder Bill Gates participates in a discussion during a luncheon of the Economic Club of Washington June 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Gates previously said that the Gates Foundation is spending “billions” — which has not been independently verified — on a vaccine for the coronavirus. He also called for an “extreme shutdown” and widespread testing before social distancing guidelines could relaxed and the economy restarts.

Once “we get our act together countrywide and if the compliance is very high and that testing including some innovations like a self-swab that our foundation has driven and those get into place by early June, we'll be looking at some type of opening up.”

PCR v. serological tests

Gates noted that “the access to the backend capacity of what's called a PCR [or polymerase chain reaction] machine is completely unmanaged. You can have somebody without symptoms who gets tested every day in some wealthy community… and you can have a healthcare worker… waiting three or four days.”

The PCR test is essentially what we know today as swab testing. The way it works is that the PCR method is a “fast and inexpensive technique” to “amplify” small segments of DNA which can then be used by labs to examine bacteria or viruses. In other words, if someone has the coronavirus, the PCR test amplifies their DNA such that scientists can study it and in just a few hours compute a result.

“The PCR test ... that is the key to tracing contacts and really getting people to go into serious quarantine,” Gates said, adding that a serological test “only goes positive after you've infected most everyone you're going to infect.”

Coronavirus case continue to rise in the U.S. (David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

He continued: “Any time the queue [for testing] is over 24 hours, that's complete mismanagement. Because the value of the result is far less worthwhile when you're not getting it very, very quickly. The best case is the PCR test goes positive before you're symptomatic or infectious and then you can act in such a way that you never infect anyone else.”

Public health experts also say that serological tests are also critical in understanding how many asymptomatic people are out there.

“We are able to test about 1,000 patients a day … [but] what we would love to start doing and hopefully this will come online soon, is test people’s antibody levels against the virus,” Dr. Brian Garibaldi, director of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit, told Yahoo Finance’s The Ticker (video above). 

That way “we can understand how much asymptomatic individuals are out there and be able to start making sure that we’re safe here, as the healthcare workforce, protecting ourselves … our families … our patients,” he added.

Anjalee Khemlani contributed to this post. Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance.

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