‘Pooled testing’ for COVID-19 holds promise, pitfalls

WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation’s top health officials are banking on a new approach to dramatically boost U.S. screening for the coronavirus: combining test samples in batches instead of running them one by one.

The potential benefits include stretching laboratory supplies, reducing costs and expanding testing to millions more Americans who may unknowingly be spreading the virus. Health officials think infected people who aren’t showing symptoms are largely responsible for the rising number of cases across more than half of states.

“Pooling would give us the capacity to go from a half-a-million tests per day to potentially 5 million individuals tested per day,” Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, told a recent meeting of laboratory experts.

For now, federal health regulators have not cleared any labs or test maker to use the technique. The Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines for test makers in mid-June and wants each to first show that mixing samples doesn’t reduce accuracy, one of the potential downsides.

So it’s not clear when pooled testing may be available for mass screenings at schools and businesses.

The principle is simple: Instead of running each person’s test individually, laboratories would combine parts of nasal swab samples from several people and test them together. A negative result would clear everyone in the batch. A positive result would require each sample to be individually retested. Pooling works best with lab-run tests, which take hours — not the much quicker individual tests used in clinics or doctor’s offices.

The idea for pooling dates from World War II, when it was considered for quickly screening blood samples from U.S. draftees for syphilis. Since then it has been adopted to screen blood samples for HIV and hepatitis. And developing countries have used pooled samples to stretch testing supplies.

China reported using the approach as part of a recent campaign to test all 11 million residents of Wuhan, the city where the virus first emerged late last year.

“Americans think this is some new concept because ordinarily we don’t have this challenge of having to stretch testing capacity,” said Darius Lakdawalla, a health economist at the University of Southern California.


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