NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
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Group Testing in a Pandemic: The Role of Frequent Testing, Correlated Risk, and Machine Learning

Ned Augenblick, Jonathan T. Kolstad, Ziad Obermeyer, Ao Wang

NBER Working Paper No. 27457
Issued in July 2020
NBER Program(s):Economics of Aging, Health Care, Health Economics, Public Economics

Group testing increases efficiency by pooling patient specimens and clearing the entire group with one negative test. Optimal grouping strategy is well studied in one-off testing scenarios with reasonably well-known prevalence rates and no correlations in risk. We discuss how the strategy changes in a pandemic environment with repeated testing, rapid local infection spread, and highly uncertain risk. First, repeated testing mechanically lowers prevalence at the time of the next test. This increases testing efficiency, such that increasing frequency by x times only increases expected tests by around √x rather than x. However, this calculation omits a further benefit of frequent testing: infected people are quickly removed from the population, which lowers prevalence and generates further efficiency. Accounting for this decline in intra-group spread, we show that increasing frequency can paradoxically reduce the total testing cost. Second, we show that group size and efficiency increases with intra-group risk correlation, which is expected in natural test groupings based on proximity. Third, because optimal groupings depend on uncertain risk and correlation, we show how better estimates from machine learning can drive large efficiency gains. We conclude that frequent group testing, aided by machine learning, is a promising and inexpensive surveillance strategy.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w27457

 
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