March 19, 2020

A method to increase dramatically the current COVID-19 testing capacity was announced by researchers at two Haifa institutions — Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Rambam Health Care Campus.

According to Professor Roy Kishony, head of the Technion biology research group, the method simply pools multiple samples in a single test tube. They’re screened using the normal PCR testing procedure, which takes several hours.

“Even when we conducted a joint examination of 64 samples in which only one was a positive carrier, the system identified that there was a positive sample,” said Kishony.

“Although there are some logistical challenges in implementing the method, we expect that it will greatly increase the volume of samples tested per day so that we can identify the asymptomatic carriers. This approach should reduce the chance of infection and flatten the infection curve.”

The current rate of COVID-19 testing in Israel — about 1,200 a day – does not allow for screening asymptomatic carriers. Many experts say this is vital to curb the epidemic.

“Today, we receive approximately 200 COVID-19 test samples a day, and each sample undergoes individual examination,” said Dr. Yuval Gefen, director of the Rambam Clinical Microbiology Laboratory.

“With the new pooling approach we have currently tested, molecular testing can be performed on a combined sample from 32 or 64 patients. This way we can significantly accelerate the testing rate. Only in those rare cases, where the joint sample is found to be positive, will we conduct an individual test for each of the specific samples.”

The trial of the pooling method was completed in less than four days, thanks to the support of the Ministry of Health and close collaboration between Technion and Rambam.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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