Ginkgo and Helix Partner on Pooled COVID Testing for Schools

The biotechnology company Ginkgo, in partnership with the diagnostics company Helix and its automated lab, aims to provide pooled COVID-19 testing programs in 2,000 school districts on the West Coast.

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As millions of K-12 students return to in-person learning, school districts across the country have looked to pooled testing as a cost-effective means of monitoring the deadly virus. The method – which minimizes the number of tests by using combined samples, and only testing individuals if a combined sample turns out positive – has been touted by officials and test providers as the most feasible way for schools with limited resources to test large numbers of teachers and students.

On April 8, the Boston-based biotechnology company and COVID-19 test provider Ginkgo Bioworks announced a partnership with San Diego diagnostics company Helix Diagnostics to provide pooled tests to school districts throughout the West Coast. According to a news release, the partnership aims to promote pooled testing to about 2,000 districts.

Ginkgo CCO Matt McKnight said the company had been providing nasal swab tests used for pooled testing programs in hundreds of school communities, including in Baltimore, Newark and Montgomery County, among others. According to McKnight, Ginkgo is now the largest American provider of classroom pooled testing to K-12 schools.

“When COVID came to Boston [this time last year], we knew that we had to commit our efforts to getting our communities out from under this pandemic,” McKnight said. “It wasn't obvious that it would be possible to do broad-scale, regular testing of the type required to get groups of people back together in a risk-conscious manner, so we started from scratch and focused on the problem of large-scale, frequent testing."

Ginkgo currently works with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which established its statewide pooled-testing program earlier this year. Through programs such as these, state officials say schools can receive pooled testing for about $3 to $5 per individual, compared to other individual tests that can cost upward of $150 per individual.

Superintendent Meg Dussault of Sharon Public Schools, Mass., said her district adopted pooled testing through Ginkgo earlier this year. Since then, Dussault said the method has proven itself “highly effective” in efforts to monitor the virus amid in-person learning.

“Many of the students and faculty who participate in testing speak about the reassurance that they feel when they have that negative pool result,” Dussault said in an emailed statement to Government Technology. “As we have moved into an in-person model, more families continue to sign up for pool testing. It has been a highly effective tool for providing data to support that the levels of COVID-19 are minimal in our schools.”

According to Helix President James Lu, Helix can deliver about 150,000 results a day from an automated diagnostics lab. He said the goal of the Ginkgo-Helix partnership is to provide accurate testing services for less than $10 per individual, similar to the price range offered in states like Massachusetts.

“I would say, think less of scientists looking at individual tubes as much as a fleet of robotics,” he said, comparing Helix's process to other kinds of labs.

Lu said Helix pivoted its focus from genomic research to COVID-19 diagnostics when the pandemic hit the U.S. last year. According to a company news release, Helix has since delivered over 4 million COVID-19 tests for various entities, including several public school districts.

Lu and McKnight both noted that a recent report from the Rockefeller Foundation recommends testing teachers and staff twice a week and students once a week, but Lu said such goals are not feasible without cost-effective testing programs. He said this will be a central focus of the partnership moving forward.

“Our view is that that price point has to be sub-$10 for this to be cost effective enough for schools to maintain, not only for the rest of the school year but through the fall, so that’s where we’re aiming,” he said, adding that they aim to provide tests for about $6 per individual.

“We think it’s the best of both worlds. You get a procedure that’s easy to do, you get a price point that’s digestible to do repeat testing and you get the accuracy and sensitivity of the PCR test to really ensure those asymptomatic populations are caught early.”

Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.