Here's how 'pool testing' could be used to ramp up COVID-19 tests

Posted at 5:30 PM, Jul 01, 2020

Top health officials are considering “pooled testing” as a way to ramp up COVID-19 tests.

Here's how it works:

Instead of testing each sample individually, labs pool together a certain amount, like 10, in one tube with one test.

If it's negative, you double check it, and then you're done.

If there's a positive, you break it down either into smaller pools or individually for further testing.

“So, there are advantages, mostly cost savings, that's the huge advantage of pooling, also the ability to go through a very large volume of specimens,” said Dr. Thomas Quinn, an infectious disease researcher at National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Quinn worked in one of many labs that used the pooling technique during the HIV epidemic in the 1980s. He says the difference between then and now is the tests themselves.

Pooling dilutes the samples. The HIV tests were very accurate, so that wasn't an issue, but with COVID-19, the tests aren't as reliable.

The other problem is pooling takes more time in the lab, even with robotic equipment helping.

“We need to get everyone tested and everyone wants to know what's the result of my test within 24 hours. That's very hard to do with pooling,” said Quinn.

Quinn isn't recommending pooling for individual testing right now. He says it could be more useful in big surveys, when it's not an emergency.