All you need to know about coronavirus

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COVID-19 mass testing possible thanks to scientists from the Nencki Institute

Only one test, and we examine 10 people. This is possible thanks to the procedures developed at the PAS Institute of Experimental Biology in Warsaw. The method saves time and money and it gives a chance to test all Poles for the presence of SARS-CoV-2. We asked Prof. Agnieszka Dobrzyń, head of the project, how to implement pooled PCR testing?

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Researchers who developed the procedures: Aleksandra Pękowska, Agnieszka Dobrzyń and Szymon Toruńczyk

The pooled testing procedure was examined as part of the SONAR Anti-CoronaVirus project, conducted in recent weeks by the PAS Institute of Experimental Biology in cooperation with the Faculty of Mathematics, Informatics and Mechanics of the University of Warsaw and laboratories of the National Sanitary Inspectorate and Medical University in Łódź.

Scientists have developed coronavirus collective testing procedures using commercially available PCR genetic tests. It is a great screening tool that allows to determine how widespread the virus is in a given group (e.g. in companies, factories, hospitals or universities). We asked Prof. Agnieszka Dobrzyń, director of the Nencki Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences and head of the SONAR project, to tell us more about large-scale testing.

Polish Academy of Sciences: Is it possible to find infected individuals by examining 10 samples with only one test?

Prof. Agnieszka Dobrzyń: Yes, this is indicated by the results of the pilot studies. We have tested 701 samples from patients positively diagnosed for SARS-CoV-2. By using group testing method, we have managed to detect the virus in 85% of them. Pooling misses to detect those people who harbor very low amounts of the virus (i.e. at the very beginning of the infection or ending asymptomatic infection). This also happens in traditional COVID-19 testing. Some of the samples, especially unskillfully collected, give ambiguous results and cannot be clearly identified using pooled testing.

Are there any specific plans how to conduct mass screenings for coronavirus?

As of today, we know exactly that group testing would be an effective way to counter the coronavirus pandemic. There is great interest in this method. We are approached by employers and entrepreneurs who would like to implement group testing for coronavirus in their workplace to avoid unplanned downtown in the manufacturing industry.

Do we know how to run pooled tests in Poland?

Yes, we have prepared detailed procedures on how to do this. But decisions whether we actually decide to do so must be taken at the level of the Minister of Health and the Chief Sanitary Inspector. Such implementation involves the preparation of infrastructure at the local level, which would have to be financed from government funds. We submitted a report detailing the procedure of mass testing to the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. We are currently holding talks with both ministries.

Pooled testing for COVID-19 in practice

Testing over 38 million Polish citizens would require thoughtful logistics and the involvement of many laboratories. Their employees would receive detailed instructions from us on how to perform group tests. Samples could be taken, among others in workplaces. The results need to be digitized and personal data safely stored so that the whole process runs smoothly and promptly. Sensitive data is another reason why we need to get official approval from the Ministry of Health.

If you want mass screenings to be available at schools and businesses throughout Poland – support scientists. Write a letter of support to the Nencki Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences (at the address COVID19@nencki.edu.pl) and to the Polish Ministry of Health.

It is worth mentioning that as part of the SONAR Anti-CoronaVirus project, our researchers tested six PCR tests available in Poland. On this basis, they indicated two most effective tests: Polish MediPAN (developed by the PAS Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry in Poznań) and Korean DiaPlexQ. They have a very high sensitivity.

Key individuals

  • Project manager – Prof. Agnieszka Dobrzyń, director of the PAS Institute of Experimental Biology
  • Coordinator for the assessment of test sensitivity and development of a protocol for the implementing of group testing in practice – Dr. Aleksandra Pękowska, PAS Institute of Experimental Biology
  • Coordinator for optimization of the algorithm for group testing procedure – Dr. Szymon Toruńczyk, Faculty of Mathematics, Informatics and Mechanics, University of Warsaw
  • Team: Kinga Szydłowska, Maria Kendziorek, Karolina Hajdukiewicz, Aleksandra Piotrowska (Nencki Institute), Bartosz Klin, Grzegorz Fabiański (University of Warsaw), Anna Siewierska-Puchlerska, Ewa Gajda (National Sanitary Inspectorate), Maciej Borowiec, Magdalena Traczyk-Borszyńska (Medical University in Łódź)

Source of information and photos: PAS Institute of Experimental Biology