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Optimizing and evaluating PCR-based pooled screening during COVID-19 pandemics


Population screening played a substantial role in safely reopening the economy and avoiding new outbreaks of COVID-19. PCR-based pooled screening makes it possible to test the population with limited resources by pooling multiple individual samples. Our study compared different population-wide screening methods as transmission-mitigating interventions, including pooled PCR, individual PCR, and antigen screening. Incorporating testing-isolation process and individual-level viral load trajectories into an epidemic model, we further studied the impacts of testing-isolation on test sensitivities. Results show that the testing-isolation process could maintain a stable test sensitivity during the outbreak by removing most infected individuals, especially during the epidemic decline. Moreover, we compared the efficiency, accuracy, and cost of different screening methods during the pandemic. Our results show that PCR-based pooled screening is cost-effective in reversing the pandemic at low prevalence. When the prevalence is high, PCR-based pooled screening may not stop the outbreak. In contrast, antigen screening with sufficient frequency could reverse the epidemic, despite the high cost and the large numbers of false positives in the screening process.

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