Coronavirus: What is pool testing? Doctor explains how it could help in COVID-19 fight

ByDan Ashley and Tim Didion KGO logo
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
Pool testing could aid COVID-19 fight
UCSF doctor explains how pool testing could help in the fight against the coronavirus and testing a larger number of people.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- With many colleges and universities across the country preparing to welcome back a limited number of students to their dorms and classrooms, testing for the coronavirus will be central to safety.

Now, a number of experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, M.D., are pointing to a strategy known as pool testing moving forward. The strategy involves combining test samples from groups of individuals.

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"You don't dump them all together, which is what some people think. But instead, to reserve the possibility of going back and testing the individual samples, you take a little bit, skim a little bit off the top of each sample," says Dr. Chris Pilcher, M.D.

Dr. Pilcher is an infectious disease specialist at UCSF, he says the concept is to combine a small portion of multiple samples taken from say the residents of an on-campus dorm. By performing one test on the pooled samples, you could potentially confirm that the residents are clear of the virus.

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"It no longer represents one individual, each sample can actually represent, in the example, I just gave, a hundred individuals," explains Dr. Pilcher.

If the pool test is positive, doctors would then test samples individually to locate the infected person.

Dr. Pilcher says pool testing was used in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, but it does have limitations. The more samples added to the mix, the more each becomes diluted making it critical that the lab test is accurate enough to detect smaller amounts of the virus to establish what that threshold is for COVID-19.

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Dr. Pilcher and his team examined reams of sample and testing data. They concluded that pool testing could be roughly 20 times as efficient as individual testing and still remain accurate.

"We were pleasantly surprised and kind of excited," he says.

This week one federal official estimated that pool testing could scale up overall COVID-19 testing capacity in the U.S. from half a million people a day, to five million.

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