29 Mar 2020

Creating an EU ‘Corona Panel’

Standardised European sample tests to uncover the true spread of the coronavirus


Much of Europe is now under lockdown. Governments have imposed increasingly draconian measures under the impression of rapidly increasing contagion and deaths. However, all these measures have been taken without reliable information on the true spread of the disease.

The numbers of infected, those in hospital care and those who have died are known with reasonable accuracy. But little is known about the prevalence of the virus today. Many of those infected show no symptoms (so-called asymptomatic cases). They are not counted in the official figures. Many with light symptoms, which make it likely, but not certain, that an infection with the coronavirus has taken place, are not tested today because not enough test kits exist (and qualified personnel to implement them is scarce as well). They also do not appear in the statistics. This means that it is not possible to know whether there is still time to implement a suppression strategy. Scientists must hedge their advice as they do not have a good picture of the situation.

Unless something is done rapidly, the problem will persist and prolong policy uncertainty. Later it will also make agreement on an exit strategy impossible. The European economy can only function fully again when border controls are lifted. But this can only happen if there is reliable cross-country data on the number of infected (and maybe of those already immune).

Member states are of course racing to increase the availability of tests, but progress is very uneven; and at present testing is done at widely different rates (for Germany no official data on testing is available).

It is of course impossible to test the entire population. What is needed is thus a comparable ‘survey test’ of a sample of the population and speed is of the essence. There is no time to put together a perfectly representative sample in each member state. However, this is not necessary because an acceptable EU-wide sample already exists in the form of the panel of households which participate in the regular surveys on economic and social conditions, called ‘EU statistics on income and living conditions (EU-SILC)’. The addresses and telephone numbers of the households in this panel are known. Teams that have contacted them in the past also exist. All that needs to be done is to dispatch a health worker to each family and offer to administer a test – an offer which few will refuse given the current conditions.

There would be no need to ask many other questions about age, health, family status, etc., because all this information is already available. This would be ‘smart testing’ because it would enable researchers to link the results immediately to many socio-demographic variables.

As proposed by Dewatripont and others, it might even be possible to implement two tests for the SILC panel: one which shows whether the subject is currently infected, and another one, to test whether the person has become immune due to previous exposure.

The objections of the national health authorities are predictable. Each one will argue that they have the situation under control at home; and that EU-wide survey testing only diverts scarce resources from immediate emergency care and testing.

However, the additional burden of conducting this first EU survey test would be manageable. The EU-SILC panel has about 5-6,000 households in the larger member states. Even accounting for 2-3 members per household, it would represent less than a day of average testing. For example, in Germany the health authorities assert that they have the capacity to carry out over 300,000 tests per week, or over 40,000 per day. Other countries are similarly ramping up their testing capacity.

The entire project should of course be guided by the EU institutions. The Commission should be responsible for finding the necessary resources (manpower, test kits, etc.) in the EU budget. The technical details could be managed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, (ECDC) which is officially the “EU agency aimed at strengthening Europe’s defences against infectious diseases”. The ECDC has no executive powers and has so far not been able to contribute materially (except for an excellent website with data) to the management of this crisis. Managing this ‘Corona Panel’ would make this, so far marginal, EU agency central to the management of the crisis (and the exit strategy). The ECDC should fix the technical parameters of the guidelines (which already exist) to ensure that the tests are comparable across countries.

It should be possible to organise this first EU-wide test within the next few weeks. The first wave will not be perfect, nor complete. But it could be repeated once every month to produce the first really representative results and comparable data. Data which member states should trust, because it has been collected in a uniform way.

Testing is of course not a panacea, but the investment in such an effort today would not consume a large part of the scarce medical resources which are obviously now needed to fight the emergency. Without this data European policy makers will continue to fight the virus blindfolded.

Originally published on Vox, the CEPR Policy Portal.