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Economist Paul Romer's Roadmap To Responsibly Reopen America

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

At last night's White House Task Force briefing, a scientist from the Department of Homeland Security unveiled some preliminary research suggesting that heat and humidity might kill the coronavirus. The scientist, Bill Bryan, unveiled the research but urged caution saying they don't know for sure if that will happen with COVID-19, and he said it would be irresponsible to say that the summer is going to totally kill the virus.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. And then President Trump suggested that powerful lights and disinfectants to clean the lungs might also kill the virus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So supposing we hit the body with a tremendous - whether it's ultraviolet or just very powerful light. And I think you said that hasn't been checked but you're going to test it. And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, you can - which you can do either through the skin or in some other way. And I think you said you're going to test that, too. Sounds interesting. Right and then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute - one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning because you see, it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it'd be interesting to check that. So that - you're going to have to use medical doctors with - but it sounds interesting to me.

KING: The medical community, on the other hand, doesn't like this. Dr. Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist at the University of Washington says injecting or ingesting any type of cleaning product into your body is irresponsible and dangerous. He and others are clearly worried that people listening to these briefings are going to act on what the president says.

GREENE: Now, the president's comments come as a handful of states are moving towards partially reopening their economies. This is of course trying to strike a balance between health concerns and a desperate need to get back to business. Paul Romer is a Nobel Prize-winning economist at New York University, and he has a new plan to reopen the country. The three main points - test everyone to find out who is infectious; only isolate infectious people; retest everyone as often as every two weeks.

And professor Romer joins me now on Skype. Thanks for being here.

PAUL ROMER: Great to be here.

GREENE: So you call this plan the Roadmap to Responsibly Reopen America. Why is this the right approach over others?

ROMER: This is the approach that saves us from two really horrific alternatives. One is that we just surrender and let the virus follow its course that would kill about a million people in the United States. The other is we stick with lockdown policies that are causing an economic catastrophe that is worse than what we experienced in the 1930s. Some people have been so desperate that they've said, well, what if we have kind of depression that we turn on and off? We lock down; we let go. You know, more people die, then we lock down again. This is madness. The only thing we need to do is figure out who's infectious and then isolate them instead of following the lockdown policy of isolating everybody because we don't know who's infectious.

GREENE: Why are you so confident that it is even possible to make sure that you know who is infectious? I mean, in the entire population, there's been such a problem getting enough testing as it is so far.

ROMER: Yeah. That's a great question. Many people don't understand my confidence, and the confidence comes from careful attention to how horrific the alternatives are. And if there's something that's hard to do - imagine it was like getting in shape or losing weight - but the alternative was something horrific, you'd do that thing. You'd get in shape; you'd lose the weight. We know how to do tests. We know how to scale this up. If it helps us avoid such terrible alternatives, we will do it. I'm absolutely confident the nation will do it. And it's only denial and wishful thinking that's helping people avoid confronting how terrible the alternatives are that's causing the delay we're now going through.

GREENE: I mean, one detail you note in your roadmap is that the FDA would need to remove some regulations in order to get enough tests out there. But I mean, the FDA has already said that some of the early tests were ineffective due to poor laboratory practices. So isn't it possible that removing some regulations would make more unreliable tests get out there?

ROMER: Yeah. There's a hidden resource that the United States can tap, which is the strength of its academic laboratories. There are a set of tests that have been produced by firms. And frankly, there's a bunch of opportunists in that world. They're selling these antibody tests. There's a real problem there. FDA screening might serve a useful function. But the kind of molecular or PCR virus tests that can catch people early on when they're - they don't have symptoms yet but they're still spreading the virus, the organizations that can scale up and do those tests are university laboratories. And we don't face the same kind of problems about grifters trying to make a fast buck if we devote enough resources to help these laboratories scale up and give us the tests we need.

GREENE: In just the few seconds we have left, I mean realistically, how quickly could you get a program like this into place that you think would still protect people and prevent this disease from coming back and surging again?

ROMER: There's a paper where the authors say that a single lab could use technologies they already know to produce millions of tests a day. I think I take them seriously. I think we could get to this point within a couple of months. But suppose I'm wrong. Suppose we create a big incentive and it takes us four months or six months. It'd still be a lot better to be able to isolate just a small number of people this summer instead of still trying to isolate everybody.

GREENE: Paul Romer, an economist at New York University. Thank you so much, professor. We really appreciate it.

ROMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.