(Note: after this was published I heard from readers about a few places doing this already, including Graphicast, a graphite mold casting company in Jaffrey.)

For the last half-year of COVID-watching, we have been fixated on the number of cases and more recently on the number of vaccinations, but you may recall that when it began what we really cared about was the number of tests.

And we still care about that, even if the topic has fallen off our radar. Widespread and continuous testing is vital or we won’t know what’s happening – for example, we won’t know how well vaccines are working.

So I was interested to hear of an MIT startup founded by a physician that makes it easier to do group testing for COVID-19, often called pool testing, via saliva rather than nasal swabs. It seems like it could be a quick and relatively easy way to spot outbreaks.

“We’re doing pilots in Wellesley and Brookline (Massachusetts). We’ll be doing a full rollout in the next few weeks,” said Dr. Brandon Busuito, co-founder of CoVerified, which was founded in April and has gotten one round of funding from Y Combinator, a well-known backer of start-ups. “We think this is the future of testing in the U.S.”

CoVerified is a software package that helps institutions keep track of all the things that COVID-19 has brought to the fore, such as contact tracing or scheduling tests and keeping track of results – all of which, as we’re seeing from the vaccine rollout, is much harder than it sounds. They’ve worked with colleges and nursing homes and are focused right now on K-12 schools.

CoVerified has joined with a biotech company called Mirimus Clinical Labs in Brooklyn, which has developed a system for saliva pool testing of COVID-19.

Pool testing involves combining samples from many subjects and testing them all together. It’s much faster and cheaper than individually testing each subject and although it doesn’t pinpoint the source of problems, it alerts us when they exist. It is an important public health tool but one that isn’t used much yet for COVID-19.

Sampling city sewer systems for the presence of the SARS-CoV2 virus that causes COVID-19, as I discussed in last week’s Granite Geek column, is a way to pool-test thousands of people at once.

What seems different about Mirimus’ system is what happens when a positive result is encountered. Typically, if pool testing spots something bad you have to go back and retest each individual. In the meantime everybody is suspect.

“We ran into this in the nursing home population. When you get a positive pool, it takes you a day or two to get a repeat test and during that (time) the whole population has to quarantine. That decimates the workforce,” said Busuito.

With the Miramis system, each person spits into a tube, seals it and drops it off at a collection point.  Up to 24 are pooled and tested at once, but importantly only a portion of each tube is tested; the remainder is put aside. If the pool test gets a positive result, it’s relatively easy to retest each sample and find the infected person.

The other good thing is that it uses saliva. Getting people to spit into a tube is a whole lot easier than expecting us to shove a stick up our nose or rub Q-tips around our mouth and gather a usable tissue sample.

Proving that tests on self-collected saliva samples are accurate enough to be depended on has been one of the steps in getting this going, Busuito said.

“Pooled-saliva testing can really be a part of everyday life. We envision these kinds of pop-up sites where people crop off their old tube, get a new tube, on some sort of regular schedule. It’s as low disruption as you can think of,” he said.

Incidentally, Busuito is an emergency-room physician who has seen first-hand the toll that COVID-19 has taken on people. So his interest in this area isn’t just financial.

The Monitor’s Tracker stopped reporting on weekly test numbers a while back because they’ve been consistently in the 8,000 to 10,000 range each day, well above the minimum level to keep an eye on things. But more testing – and cheaper testing – would be very useful.

Speaking of numbers, here is the data for the past week. In general, things are looking a little better but the number of deaths doesn’t seem to be slowing, even though we have ended most outbreaks at long-term care facilities.

Daily updated charts and other information, including information about vaccine distribution, can be seen on the Monitor’s COVID-19 page at www.concordmonitor.com/Special-Sections/Covid-19.

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