The method, called pooled testing, signals a paradigm shift. Instead of carefully rationing tests to only those with symptoms, pooled testing would enable frequent surveillance of asymptomatic people. Mass identification of coronavirus infections could hasten the reopening of schools, offices and factories.
“We’re in intensive discussions about how we’re going to do it,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, said in an interview. “We hope to get this off the ground as soon as possible.”
Given the many advantages, experts said, health officials should have embraced pooled testing much sooner. The United States military has used the technique at its bases worldwide, and has done so since it first tested men for syphilis in the 1940s. Health officials in China, Germany, Israel and Thailand have all deployed pooled testing for the coronavirus.
Here’s how the technique works: A university, for example, takes samples from every one of its thousands of students by nasal swab, or perhaps saliva. Setting aside part of each individual’s sample, the lab combines the rest into a batch holding five to 10 samples each.
The pooled sample is tested for coronavirus infection. If a pool yields a positive result, the lab would retest the reserved parts of each individual sample that went into the pool, pinpointing the infected student.
The strategy could be employed for as little as $3 per person per day, according an estimate from economists at the University of California, Berkeley.
By testing large numbers of people at a fraction of the cost, time and necessary ingredients, pooled surveillance could be widely adopted by workplaces, religious organizations, and schools and universities seeking to reopen.
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