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Coronavirus: How “pool testing” could help

Written by Diane Archer

The novel coronavirus is not going away at the moment. Tens of thousands more people are getting infected. And, the US has not yet figured out how to successfully control its spread or to test everyone who needs testing. Andrew Young reports for Stat News on how “pool testing” could help.

Pool testing tests groups of up to ten people who are asymptomatic for COVID-19 at a time. With one test, it will let you know if a whole group tests negative. If the results come out positive, it will not tell you which of the ten has COVID-19 . But, it will tell you that each of those ten people needs to be tested individually because at least one of them has COVID-19.

Pool testing allows companies to test its workers with greater frequency and ensure that even people without COVID-19 symptoms are COVID-19 free, in areas where COVID-19 is not rampant. It efficiently allows companies to have a better sense of the health of their work force. If the pool tests come back negative, there’s less need to worry about COVID-19 infection and workers do not need to be tested individually.

The value of pool testing is that it allows for a lot more testing, more quickly–from 500,000 to 5 million daily. Right now, labs are backed up. People cannot get tested as quickly as they should. With group testing, more people can be tested. And, that’s needed to ensure that businesses and schools reopen safely.

We know that a sizable number of people with COVID-19 are entirely symptom free. So, without testing, it’s impossible to know whether they have the virus. But, if they have the virus and are asymptomatic, they still could be spreading it. So, it’s important to test them if they are working or in a group setting and not socially isolated.

The risk of pool testing is that it leads to more false negative test results–the test result is negative even though someone in the pool is COVID-19 positive. This can happen because the virus is diluted in a pool. So, if one person of ten has the virus and the others are healthy, it’s possible that pool testing will not catch it. And, then there’s a false sense of security.

There’s also the issue of false positives. The COVID-19 tests are not perfect. So, test results will not always be accurate.

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