If President Donald Trump lived in a fairytale world – which some critics say he does – he might ask himself the question “Mirror, mirror on the wall, which country has done the most covid-19 tests of all.”
Just like the Evil Witch in the story of Snow White, the answer in the case of coronavirus testing is not at all to Trump’s liking. No, the United States is not “the fairest one of all.”
On Tuesday President Trump claimed the United States had the world’s best record on testing, suggesting that 5 million tests a day were being carried out.
“We are way ahead on testing. We are the best in the world on testing. We’ve tested much more than anybody else, times two — or every country combined. We’ve tested more than every country combined,” he said.
If only that were true, screamed his critics.
The country with the most tests, but ...
So, let’s take a look at the facts. Yes, the pure number of U.S. tests conducted is high – more than 6 million - almost twice that of any other country. But that’s only because the United States, with 328 million inhabitants, has one of the world’s largest populations.
But not per-capita
In fact, the U.S. ranks well below most countries on a test-per-capita basis, which statisticians consider to be a better measure of performance, according to the data compiled by several websites, including the John’s Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
For example, Russia, the country with the second highest number of tests – around 3.7 million – has a population of 144.5 million, less than half the United States. On a per capita basis, Russia has a higher test rate of 25,300 per million, compared to 19,300 for the United States.
Spain and Italy
Other smaller countries hit hard by the virus, such as Spain and Italy, have much higher test rates than the United States - Spain with 31,100 per million and Italy with 32,700 per million – almost twice what the Trump administration has achieved. Germany also has a test rate of 30,400 per million.
US better than some
The United States is far from the worst offender, however. The United Kingdom, which has also been heavily impacted, ranks lower than the United States, with 13,200 cases per million. The government of Boris Johnson has also been heavily criticized for its slow response to testing. France has also lagged, with only 11,100 per million tests.
Other large countries have also not done well. Brazil has barely 1,500 tests per million, while India has only 654 per million and Mexico, 635.
The champions: Iceland, Israel, Portugal
At the other end of the scale, the champions are Iceland (population 364,000) with 143,900 per million and the Faeroe Islands (population 48,500) with 148,500 per million. Of the larger countries with a population over five million, the best testing records are held by Portugal with 38,800 per million and Israel with 42,100 per million.
President Trump has struggled with the issue of testing since the very beginning of the pandemic, going back and forth over who is responsible for the testing logistics, and blaming states for not doing enough. When he is not blaming the states, his likes to say the tests are “beautiful” and the federal numbers are “fantastic.”
Neither are true. In fact, the first test that was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had to be discarded due to flaws. That caused a serious delay while other tests were developed. In the end private laboratories were given federal permission to use their own testing regime. Currently, the vast majority of tests – something like 90 percent – are being carried out by the private labs, not the federal government.
Moreover, Trump keeps exaggerating the statistics or making claims that turned out to be incorrect.
On March 6, Trump famously stated that “anyone who wants a test can get a test.” He was corrected the next day by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
On April 28, Trump said “We’ve tested more than every country combined.” In fact, as of the end of April 30, the United States has conducted 6.1 million tests, according to the Worldometer, an independent global statistics compiler run by an international team of developers, researchers, and volunteers, which provides data to Johns Hopkins.
The five European countries, Spain, Italy, Germany, France and the UK, with a combined population of 323 million that is similar to the United States, have alone conducted more than seven million tests.
Trump has complained that the media’s focus on coronavirus testing, and the lack of it, is part of conspiracy by the media and his political opponent to hurt him politically.
Importance of testing
But Trump has himself recognized the vital importance of testing as part of his strategy to reopen the economy quickly, and safely. Public health experts have emphasized that conducting far more tests now is critical to measure where, and how quickly it is safe to lift economic restrictions, without allowing the virus to spread.
Indeed, the federal government’s own coronavirus task force recommends “increased testing of people for the virus,” under the guidelines set by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet, on Wednesday, Trump suggested testing numbers were increasing so fast that maybe it was more than enough. "You'll see some astonishing numbers, I don't know that all of that's even necessary," he said during an event at the White House.
A Harvard University study has recommended that five million tests a day would be needed by June, and 20 million a day by July, for a return to normal life.
On April 28, Trump answered a question about that study and pledged to reach the goals of five million tests a day “in the very near future.” He added: “we’re going to be there very soon. If you look at the numbers, it could be that we’re getting very close.”
In fact, currently testing is running at about 300,000 tests a day, so achieving five million tests a day in the very near future would appear to be an unachievable goal.
In fact, Trump’s own assistant secretary of health, Brett Giroir, told Time magazine earlier that same day” “There is absolutely no way on Earth, on this planet or any other planet, that we can do 20 million tests a day, or even 5 million tests a day.”
So, the next day, Trump attempted to set the record straight, in his own inimitable way – by denying he ever said it. “I didn’t say it. … I think it was the Harvard report,” he said, adding that “we are going to be there at a certain point. We’ll be there.”
This time, he wisely did not specify when.
In conclusion: the president’s statements that the U.S. has the best record in the world on covid-19 testing, are both misleading and plainly false. While it is true that the United States has conducted more tests than any other country in the world, it has done so at a lower per-capita rate than many other countries. The uncontroverted data also shows that it is also completely untrue that the United States has conducted more tests than all the other countries in the world.