[/news/coronavirus/index.html Coronavirus] swabs should be analysed in batches to speed up the Government's lagging testing programme, experts say.
The method, known as pooled testing, involves combining multiple swabs in a batch into a single test tube.
If Covid-19 is not detected in the combined sample, all patients are presumed to be negative. If any viral particles are picked up, all original swabs are then tested again individually.
Researchers say the method — already deployed in [/news/germany/index.html Germany] — could help to rapidly increase testing capacity at a time when the demand is outstripping supply.
The technique is intended to save time and resources — in theory, 50 to 100 swabs could be combined to produce a single result.
Experts in Germany pool as many as 30 samples in one go, but scientists admit that borderline positive samples — often yielded by people swabbed in the very early or late stages of their infection — can slip under the radar using the method.
Boris Johnson has ambitions to swab 10million people a day but the UK is currently struggling to turn-around more than 250,000.
University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have called for the method change in an editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
The authors also recommended a major investment in people on the ground who can knock on doors to support the UK's beleaguered contact tracing system.
They pointed to Massachusetts, where a $44million (£34m) contact tracing programme hired and trained 1,000 people to support existing local public health volunteers.
The system has reached 91.8 per cent of cases and 78.8 per cent of contacts, compared to the UK's centralised system which is struggling to find six in 10 contacts.
The researchers write that this approach would also be much less costly than the UK government's £100billion 'Operation Moonshot', but far less grandiose.
Coronavirus tests should be analysed in batches to speed up the Government's lagging testing programme, experts say.
The method, known as pooled testing, involves combining small amounts of multiple swabs in a batch into a single test tube (file)
Several other countries - including China, the US, Germany, Portugal, New Zealand, Rwanda, Uruguay, Israel and Vietnam - have used pooled testing to considerably increase testing capacity and decrease pressure on lab reagents and operators.
As outbreaks grow and positivity rates rise, however, pooling becomes less efficient because more samples have to be tested.
The authors said in the paper: 'We are close to missing that window of opportunity in England unless we can control transmission quickly.
'For now, pooling may be best reserved for surveillance testing and asymptomatic screening of healthcare workers, care homes and hospital pre-admissions.'
The researchers set out a number of other recommendations, including making use of lab capacity in universities and research institutes.
Experts at these facilities have for months been calling for the Government to utilise their spare lab space to help process thousands more Covid-19 tests each day.
Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute, has repeatedly slammed ministers for keeping independent labs out of the loop in favour of the government's seven Lighthouse Labs.
The Nobel Prize-winning geneticist urged Boris Johnson to summon the Dunkirk spirit and let the 'small ships' help process tests at the start of April. But his pleas for the UK to adopt a German-style mass network of labs have gone unanswered.
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