Infectious disease physician discusses pool testing option for universities

Infectious disease physician discusses pool testing option for universities
Thomas Jefferson Health District conducting tests for COVID-19 in the White Hall area of Albemarle Co. (Source: WVIR)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - In just a few weeks thousands of University of Virginia students are able to return to grounds. One possible way to track their health is pool testing.

That’s when a group of individuals is tested, typically in a low-risk population, to save resources such as reagents, which are difficult to come by right now.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam floated the idea in a press conference earlier this week.

“On college campuses, and then in some other areas, looking at what we call pooling testing, where you might sample five, 10 individuals and pool that together and do one test to just be able to follow the prevalence in different areas - for example, in a dormitory on a college campus,” Northam said.

However, Dr. Amy Mathers, an infectious disease physician at UVA Health, says pool testing does have some shortcomings.

“It sounds great in theory, but there’s several problems that quickly arise,” Dr. Mathers said. “Of course, it’s not worth ding if you’ve got a lot of positives because if every one of those pool tests is positive, you have to back up and test individuals each one of those tests.”

She explained further: “For example, if you have a 10% positivity and you pool all those tests, you could end up needing to - you just wasted the pooling, plus you have to then go back and test every single individual one again.”

Dr. Mathers said that the FDA is requiring a large commercial lab that is doing pool testing to not run those tests on any population where there’s more than a 2% prevalence. In the Thomas Jefferson Health District, the 7-day percent positivity average has fluctuated between six and nine percent since moving into Phase 3 of reopening.

The University of Virginia has no plans of pool testing in its available Return to Grounds guidelines.

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