Fauci Says Symptom-Free Virus Spread Pushes Task Force to Consider New Testing Approach

June 26, 2020 Updated: June 26, 2020

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said health officials are “seriously considering” pooling samples as a way to ramp up COVID-19 testing in the midst of a pandemic characterized by a high degree of asymptomatic spread.

“What you need to do is find the penetration of infected people in your society,” Fauci told the Washington Post on Thursday. “And the only way you know that is by casting a broad net,” he said, referring to a novel approach called pool testing.

This is where instead of testing individual samples, which is time-consuming, many samples are pooled together and tested as a batch. If the whole batch tests negative for the presence of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, testers move on to evaluate another large batch. This minimizes the need to test each individual sample because only if there’s a positive indication of the virus at a batch level is there a need to test individual samples.

Pool testing is a concept that Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told House lawmakers about in Tuesday’s testimony about the federal response to the pandemic. Redfield was joined by Fauci, who told the committee that testing and contact surveillance were key to understanding how the deadly bug spreads in the community.

“One of the key things, as Tony mentioned, is surveillance, expanding surveillance, because of the asymptomatic nature of this infection,” Redfield said. “And in doing so, we’re looking at ways that can really substantially enhance testing by potentially pooling samples.”

Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks
Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during the daily briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, at the White House in Washington April 17, 2020. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Redfield said currently between 500,000 and 600,000 tests per day were being done across the United States and he and other White House Coronavirus Task Force members were seeking solutions that would increase this several-fold.

“If we can pool samples five to one, that would bring it to three million tests per day,” Redfield said, adding, “so we’re continuing to try and enhance testing, it’s a critical underpinning of our response.”

In Thursday’s remarks to the Washington Post, Fauci highlighted the challenge posed by the high asymptomatic spread of COVID-19, which some research has put at up to 45 percent.

“Asymptomatic persons seem to account for approximately 40% to 45% of SARS-CoV-2 infections, and they can transmit the virus to others for an extended period, perhaps longer than 14 days,” according to the abstract of a study published on June 3 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“We now know the level of virus in an asymptomatic person is about the same as the level of virus in somebody who has symptoms,” Fauci said. “So it’s like, oh my goodness, how do you address that?”

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