- Reopening businesses and schools amid COVID-19 will require reliable testing data.
- Frequent testing for the coronavirus is an obvious solution, but costs will be prohibitive and supply limited.
- Pooled testing for COVID-19 offers a cost-effective and scalable solution, wherein tests are batched to test multiple individuals simultaneously.
- Pooled testing could ramp up the number of coronavirus tests while lowering testing costs, especially in low-prevalence areas.
- Schools and businesses saddled with testing costs could lower costs by as much as 75 percent.
Decisions about reopening businesses and schools while keeping employees and customers safe will likely fall to business leaders and school administrators. While frequent testing might seem like the natural answer, costs will quickly add up for American businesses and school systems already crippled in the aftermath of a major shutdown. Finding cost-effective ways to test might provide a way out of the shutdown.
Pooled testing is a well-established approach to track infectious disease, wherein a lab tests batched samples of several people for the presence of active virus.1 If the test indicates at least one person in that pool is infected, repeat testing of the individuals in the infected pool can reveal the source. In contrast, if the pooled sample comes back negative, it could clear all members of the pool for work, at least until the next testing cycle. While there are inherent challenges in this approach, including choosing appropriate pool sizes and factoring in test-reliability concerns, our estimates suggest that pooled testing could lower testing costs by half or even three-quarters for many schools and businesses. Greater savings are incurred in low-prevalence areas. Employers need to identify COVID-19+ workers and do so at reasonable cost. Pooled testing is an effective tool for doing so.