Expanding testing capabilities is integral to managing the further spread of SARS-CoV-2 and developing reopening strategies, particularly in regards to identifying and isolating asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals. Central to meeting testing demands are specimens that can be easily and reliably collected and laboratory capacity to rapidly ramp up to scale. We and others have demonstrated that high and consistent levels of SARS-CoV-2 RNA can be detected in saliva from COVID-19 inpatients, outpatients, and asymptomatic individuals. As saliva collection is non-invasive, extending this strategy to test pooled saliva samples from multiple individuals could thus provide a simple method to expand testing capacity. However, hesitation towards pooled sample testing arises due to the dilution of positive samples, potentially shifting weakly positive samples below the detection limit for SARS-CoV-2 and thereby decreasing the sensitivity. Here, we investigated the potential of pooling saliva samples by 5, 10, and 20 samples prior to RNA extraction and RT-qPCR detection of SARS-CoV-2. Based on samples tested, we conservatively estimated a reduction of 7.41%, 11.11%, and 14.81% sensitivity, for each of the pool sizes, respectively. Using these estimates we modeled anticipated changes in RT-qPCR cycle threshold to show the practical impact of pooling on results of SARS-CoV-2 testing. In tested populations with greater than 3% prevalence, testing samples in pools of 5 requires the least overall number of tests. Below 1% however, pools of 10 or 20 are more beneficial and likely more supportive of ongoing surveillance strategies.
Watkins AE, Fenichel EP, Weinberger DM, Vogels CBF, Brackney DE, Casanovas-Massana A, Campbell M, Fournier J, Bermejo S, Datta R, Dela Cruz CS, Farhadian SF, Iwasaki A, Ko AI, Grubaugh ND, Wyllie AL. (2020). Pooling saliva to increase SARS-CoV-2 testing capacity. medRxiv : the preprint server for health sciences