Okinawa Needs Major Investment in Widespread Testing Across Okinawa to Protect People and Economy

John Lennon once claimed “reality leaves a lot to the imagination”. In other words, reality – the state of things as they are, rather than we imagine them to be – is often much harder to live with.

At a recent political rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Donald Trump called for a slowdown in COVID-19 testing. Fox News reported his concern that more tests ‘make us look like we have more cases'. This followed a broadcast interview in which the U.S. President said: “if instead of 50 million tests, we did 25 million, we’d have half the number of cases.”

Take this thinking to its final conclusion and you reach the point where no tests equals no cases. Comforting to imagine, but nonsense. Advisors to President Trump now suggest he might have been joking.

The reality of COVID-19 is deadly serious and for Okinawa especially the importance of widespread testing is critical. Our Prefecture should be testing early, wherever it can. This provides the chance to isolate an infected person. Every positive test then gives you the opportunity to alert others who were in close contact. Through testing, we have the means to reduce the spread.

We are distressed to see that Okinawa now has, in relative terms, the highest number of new cases in the country. Analysis shows that the form of COVID-19 most common in Japan today is a mutated version of the virus now in Europe. Scientists have found that good numbers of people who pick up this mutated version experience no illness, or only mild symptoms. Because of this, they continue to pass it to others. Teenagers and young adults are around six times more likely to pick it up and spread it, including to those for whom the impact is severe or life threatening. This spread intensified from the middle of June onwards, when national business travel and domestic tourism started to increase.

It is highly likely that Okinawans are now being infected with this particular variation of COVID-19. If we cannot identify the symptom-free carriers, the 2nd wave of infection in our islands will just get worse. Let’s establish widespread testing across Okinawa, to detect asymptomatic spreaders, and stop the virus in its tracks. Any widespread testing we roll out also needs to the fastest and most reliable available. Delays in testing slow down the process of contact tracing. Patients tested today will remember those they spent time with yesterday, but they’re unlikely to remember their contacts from a week ago.

The Prefecture’s severely limited testing policy announced on August 7th might well be influenced by a shortage of clinical staff and meagre resources, but practical challenges can be substantially overcome by pooled testing and smart analysis of data. Furthermore, the technology to deliver pooled testing already exists. The Ministry of Finance in Tokyo has promised no limit on the funds necessary to fight the pandemic. So what are we waiting for?

Okinawa needs major investment in mass testing facilities. We see no other way to keep Okinawans healthy, and to protect the economically vital tourism sector.

The author Alex Haley put it this way: “Either you deal with what is the reality, or you can be sure that the reality is going to deal with you.”

By Dr. Peter Gruss, President/CEO, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), and Prof. Mahesh Bandi, OIST.

The Japanese translation of this article was published on August 13, 2020 in the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper under the title "【OIST特別寄稿】コロナ今こそ大量検査 沖縄観光守るため県は投資を".