‘It will make the outbreak much, much worse’: Harvard experts raise alarm over updates to CDC testing guidance for COVID-19

"We’re all baffled by this decision.”

Kelly Nagi, a nurse practitioner, conducted COVID-19 coronavirus test Friday in the parking lot at Brockton High School under a tent during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Harvard Global Health Institute is raising concerns about changes made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week to its guidance for COVID-19 testing, modifying its recommendations to say asymptomatic individuals don’t “necessarily” need to be tested even if they’ve had close contact with someone sick with coronavirus.

In a statement, the Harvard institute called the updates to the testing recommendations a “curious change” that is “not supported by current evidence.”

“Quietly and without an explanation, the CDC on Monday changed its testing policy to no longer recommend a coronavirus test for people who have come in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case but have no symptoms,” the Harvard experts wrote. “The new guidance represents a major departure from the evidence-based policy on tracing and testing contacts of positive cases that has played a key role in the success of states such as New York and Massachusetts and countries such as Germany and South Korea to contain the virus.”


The institute stressed that the tracing and testing of people — regardless of their symptoms — who come into contact with someone with COVID-19 remains a critical effort in “curtailing” the spread of the virus. 

“Asymptomatic spread is real,” the institute wrote. 

The institute urged the CDC to explain the reasons for the “consequential change in policy” and make the evidence supporting the modifications public, noting that many studies have shown people without symptoms are spreaders of the virus, making the tracing and testing of asymptomatic contacts a “key tool in the pandemic response toolkit.”

“Around the nation there are city and state officials who are applying testing strategies based on the CDC’s advice,” the institute wrote. “Are they supposed to suddenly stop testing asymptomatic contacts of COVID-19 positive people, in spite of the strong evidence that supports this COVID-19 control tool?”

The CDC’s changes to the guidance were reportedly made under pressure from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the Washington Post reports. In the days since the change, public health experts and officials across the country have decried the change. 

In a letter, doctors and scientists with the Infectious Diseases Society of America called for the “immediate reversal” of the revisions. 


“By not tracing and testing these contacts that don’t have symptoms, we are allowing the virus to spread freely,” the experts at the Harvard Institute wrote in their statement. “By the time pre-symptomatic people feel sick and seek a test, they may have already infected many others. Truly asymptomatic people can go on infecting others entirely unnoticed.”

In a Thursday appearance on Good Morning America, Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said he is “heartbroken” by the politicization of the CDC, saying the American people should be able to trust the nation’s scientists. 

“There is no scientific basis for this change in policy,” Jha said, noting that about half of the spread of the virus occurs from people exhibiting no symptoms.

“It will make the outbreak much, much worse,” he said. “So I think we’re all baffled by this decision.”

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