As Covid-19 Testing Moves Center Stage, U.S. and U.K. Approaches Differ

U.K. provides centralized free testing while the U.S. is patchy, less intensive

As highly transmissible coronavirus variants sweep across the world, scientists are racing to understand why these new versions of the virus are spreading faster, and what this could mean for vaccine efforts. New research says the key may be the spike protein, which gives the coronavirus its unmistakable shape. Illustration: Nick Collingwood/WSJ


LONDON—As successful vaccination drives beat back Covid-19 in many Western countries, health experts say quicker and smarter testing is the route to keeping the disease under control as restrictions on daily life ease.

In the U.S., rapid-fire tests are now available in drugstores and online, but there are concerns that they are too expensive for frequent use. Genetic sequencing—essential for spotting potentially troublesome viral variants—is patchy, with some states doing far more surveillance than others.

The U.K., by contrast, is doling out simple test kits on demand at no charge to households and businesses, and its labs are sequencing thousands of viral genomes a week. So-called surge testing has seen neighborhoods in London, Birmingham and Manchester flooded with test kits and contact-tracing teams after clusters of variant-linked cases were detected.

The strategy underlines what scientists say will be critical components of the next stage of the pandemic for countries where vaccination is well advanced: Easy and accessible testing aimed at forestalling new infections and genetic sleuthing to ferret out worrisome mutants with the potential to find a chink in our immunological armor.

“We’re entering into a new phase of this pandemic, and the role of testing and sequencing and all different modes of keeping an eye on the virus is certainly changing, in terms of what its role is in keeping the community safe and keeping a handle on this pandemic,” said Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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