How the New Coronavirus Testing Strategy Called ‘Pooling’ Might Work

Testing has been a hot issue around COVID-19, and to stop the spread, experts are looking into a new way of testing that could safe time, effort and supplies.

It’s a method called “pool testing,” or “pooling,” and it’s aimed to provide better insight on exactly where the coronavirus hotspots are and aren’t for a community—it’s not a better way to test you individually. If a community knows there are cases, it can enact appropriate precautions quickly. That’s important in this very communicable disease.

How does pool testing work?

Also known as batch testing, pool testing is different than other testing methods since it takes the testing samples from many people at once and tests them for coronavirus together. This is how it lowers the need for supplies (like the reagents required to do the test) and time.

If the test comes back with the presence of a positive reading for the virus—amongst the group as a whole—then each person in that testing pool would have to be tested individually and have their results analyzed to see whose sample amongst the group has the positive result.

If the test is negative, then the testers are done with that group and can move on to the next.

What are the benefits of pool testing?

What’s the draw? “If everyone is negative, then you’re done,” Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The Washington Post.

Pool testing was first used back during World War II, when people were being tested for STDs such as syphilis and HIV. And now it could come in handy again, to help provide much-needed speed and insight on where and how the pandemic is spreading.

You are able to target many more people at once to test, which is a major pro, yet there are some drawbacks that come with pool testing, too.

What are the drawbacks to pool testing?

“The trade-off is that there’s reduced sensitivity. It’s kind of a balance,” said Benjamin Pinsky, director of the Clinical Virology Laboratory at Stanford University’s School of Medicine also told The Washington Post. Samples with low viral loads are more likely to pass through undetected when in a pool than through individual testing methods, he explained.

Researchers have suggested that pool testing works best for groups that are between three and 50 people. The larger the pool, the more likely a positive case with a low viral load will be too diluted to lead to a detection of the virus within the results. Researchers are still working to improve methods and find ways to make diagnosing a positive case from a pool easier.

So, does pool testing work?

Pool testing could work due to the benefits of reducing need for resources and time, but there are the drawbacks—the pandemic is too vast and has infected too many people, so it’s likely a large amount of individual testing would still need to occur.

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Pool sampling works best in large populations in which the infection rate is low—and there may not be that many of them at this point. If you are working with a large group where a number of people may be positive, it’s not helpful to group them together, because the group will be positive and then individual testing still needs to be done.

Right now, some labs are now preparing to undergo clinical pool testing, pending approval from the FDA. It remains to be seen how those efforts pan out and whether it’s a useful strategy to strategically roll out in the US.

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