Breakthrough Technology Leads to More Accurate, Cheaper Mass COVID Testing

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) researchers are collaborating with Soroka University Medical Centre and Clalit Health Services in Israel on the first use of a combinatorial pooling method for SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic testing.

This new single-stage diagnostic test will help prevent the spread of the disease by identifying infected people sooner and at a lower cost using significantly fewer tests. The test successfully identifies all positive patients and asymptomatic carriers in a single round of testing. While some labs pool samples that combine the RNA from several people as a single sample, they must retest each individual to determine which ones are positive. This new method eliminates the need for the second step.

“Our method is the only process now available to deliver the level of mass testing that countries are currently aiming for in order to control outbreaks,” says BGU’s Prof. Tomer Hertz, of the Shraga Segal Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics. Prof Hertz is also the co-founder of Poold Diagnostics, which has been contracted to provide the test at Soroka and at the Clalit HMO central laboratory in Tel Aviv.

“We’ve already successfully tested 40,000 samples in Israel during the first two weeks of clinical operation,” says Prof. Hertz.

PCR-tests (polymerase chain reaction) are used to detect RNA in many types of genetic material and is widely-used to test for SARS-CoV-2. In this case, a diagnostic, a combinatorial pooling algorithm, uses compressed sensing for efficient SARS-CoV-2 testing. It was developed by researchers at BGU, the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev (NIBN), The Open University of Israel (OUI), and Soroka.

Prof. Hertz says that introducing the Poold method at Soroka’s lab will quadruple the current capacity of 2,000 samples a day with minimal increase in staffing and virtually no increase in materials required. The Poold Diagnostics team is preparing to provide its technology internationally. It could ultimately be used at schools, airports and major events, as well as in large diagnostic laboratories.

“We’re pleased to see how quickly Ben-Gurion University researchers’ lifesaving, breakthrough technology has been implemented into laboratories where testing takes place,” says Doug Seserman, chief executive officer of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “It’s wonderful to see these innovative tests being widely used in Israel and I hope we have it soon in the United States as well.”