Implementation of a Pooled Surveillance Testing Program for Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Infections on a College Campus - Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, August 2-October 11, 2020

MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020 Nov 20;69(46):1743-1747. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6946e1.


On university campuses and in similar congregate environments, surveillance testing of asymptomatic persons is a critical strategy (1,2) for preventing transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). All students at Duke University, a private research university in Durham, North Carolina, signed the Duke Compact (3), agreeing to observe mandatory masking, social distancing, and participation in entry and surveillance testing. The university implemented a five-to-one pooled testing program for SARS-CoV-2 using a quantitative, in-house, laboratory-developed, real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test (4,5). Pooling of specimens to enable large-scale testing while minimizing use of reagents was pioneered during the human immunodeficiency virus pandemic (6). A similar methodology was adapted for Duke University's asymptomatic testing program. The baseline SARS-CoV-2 testing plan was to distribute tests geospatially and temporally across on- and off-campus student populations. By September 20, 2020, asymptomatic testing was scaled up to testing targets, which include testing for residential undergraduates twice weekly, off-campus undergraduates one to two times per week, and graduate students approximately once weekly. In addition, in response to newly identified positive test results, testing was focused in locations or within cohorts where data suggested an increased risk for transmission. Scale-up over 4 weeks entailed redeploying staff members to prepare 15 campus testing sites for specimen collection, developing information management tools, and repurposing laboratory automation to establish an asymptomatic surveillance system. During August 2-October 11, 68,913 specimens from 10,265 graduate and undergraduate students were tested. Eighty-four specimens were positive for SARS-CoV-2, and 51% were among persons with no symptoms. Testing as a result of contact tracing identified 27.4% of infections. A combination of risk-reduction strategies and frequent surveillance testing likely contributed to a prolonged period of low transmission on campus. These findings highlight the importance of combined testing and contact tracing strategies beyond symptomatic testing, in association with other preventive measures. Pooled testing balances resource availability with supply-chain disruptions, high throughput with high sensitivity, and rapid turnaround with an acceptable workload.

MeSH terms

  • Asymptomatic Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Betacoronavirus / isolation & purification
  • COVID-19
  • COVID-19 Testing
  • COVID-19 Vaccines
  • Clinical Laboratory Techniques / methods*
  • Coronavirus Infections / diagnosis*
  • Coronavirus Infections / epidemiology*
  • Coronavirus Infections / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • North Carolina / epidemiology
  • Pandemics / prevention & control
  • Pneumonia, Viral / diagnosis*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / prevention & control
  • Program Development
  • Public Health Surveillance / methods*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Universities
  • Viral Load