Polish scientists start work on group tests for coronavirus

Scientists from the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology with the Polish Academy of Sciences have started working on a protocol that will enable group testing for the novel coronavirus. The team of scientists say that they are hopeful that the new method will make it possible to increase the number of samples tested in Poland from over 10,000 a day currently to more than 100,000.

The scientists behind the SONAR Anti-coronavirus Project argue that the mass-tests will be particularly efficient in testing conducted on groups of people who face a high risk of being exposed to the novel coronavirus, such as residents of nursing homes and hospital staff.

The team led by Prof. Agnieszka Dobrzyń hopes to develop the protocol needed for mass genetic testing within a few weeks. Explaining the benefits of the new method to reporters from the Polish Press Agency (PAP), Prof. Dobrzyń stated that 95 percent of tests conducted in Poland for the virus come back negative. Group testing would allow for dozens of samples being mixed together, and then a single test would be made. If it comes back negative, it means that all the samples were negative. If it would come back positive the original samples would be split in two groups which would be separately tested again.

The procedure makes it possible to test a much larger number of samples with the use of fewer separate tests, saving both time and resources. The method is already used in testing for other viruses such as HIV and the flu virus.

The Nencki Institute reports that research facilities in Israel, India, Germany and the USA have been working on group testing for the novel coronavirus in recent weeks.

Representatives of the Nencki Institute told the PAP reporters that their work is focused on developing a testing protocol before the method can be applied by the Polish health service, stating that "group testing has not been used in Poland so far because there is no diagnostic protocol on how to do this effectively. And that is what the team from the Nencki Institute has to do: to create procedures that will guarantee reliable results".

The next stage of the SONAR Anti-coronavirus Project will be to inspect all genetic tests for the virus currently available on the market to find the test which gives the lowest percentage of false negative results.

In the final stage of the project, the scientists from the Nencki Institute will cooperate with specialists from the Institute of Computer Science as well as the Faculty of Computer Science, Mathematics and Mechanics at Warsaw University to develop software able to calculate which samples should be placed in a specific test group. The aim is to select a group of patients who share a similar level of probability of being infected as that will make the results more reliable.

The SONAR Anti-coronavirus project is funded by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education