The “Toilet Paper” Reality

ID Heroes across the country were asked to share their perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Stephen M. Brecher of VA Boston HealthCare Center shares his in an essay titled The “Toilet Paper” Reality.

The first real reported shortage in the early days of COVID was toilet paper. In reality, the toilet paper shortage is the poster child of dramatic changes in the world in the face of what seems to be a catastrophe just short of WW III. We are so accustomed to getting what we want or need instantly from the local store or from Amazon overnight that we cannot accept the paucity of toilet paper.

I am a clinical microbiologist, run a lab in a large hospital, and am trying to perform an assay for the agent associated with COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). At one level, it was remarkable that WHO and others had a test within weeks of the Wuhan outbreak. At another level, it was also remarkable that the United States of America took nearly 2 months to have very limited testing for this pesky virus. This has created a demand for test kits that makes the toilet paper shortage look trivial.

In addition, testing supplies are still very limited, especially the special swabs needed to get to the posterior pharynx through the nose and the viral transport media needed to preserve the virus on the swab. Companies are not even taking back-orders for these swab kits because they are so back-ordered. There is now a test that can be done in under an hour and my greatest fear is that I will eventually get my hands on the test kits but have no swab samples to test on them.

The COVID world crisis was predicted by Bill Gates in his brilliant 2015 TED talk. When Bill speaks the world should listen. He outlined creative possibilities and feasible solutions on how to react and mobilize in order to deal with these challenges. We are still so behind this virus with respect to testing that the real issue is how far we can fall behind before we cannot recover. We need, in the US alone, 500 million tests to determine who has the virus with disease, who has it without disease, and how long people carry it after disease. At the moment, the world is a laboratory classroom and we better be “A” students because this will happen again. Just ask Bill. And please don’t hoard the toilet paper.