Washington, DC - It can be an enormous challenge for schools and businesses to determine how to establish an effective COVID-19 testing program, particularly with the multiple testing options now on the market. An innovative online tool funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), part of the National Institutes of Health, helps organizations choose a COVID-19 testing strategy that will work best for their specific needs. The COVID-19 Testing Impact Calculator is a free resource that shows how different approaches to testing and other mitigation measures, such as mask use, can curb the spread of the virus in any organization. It is the first online tool in the nation to provide schools and businesses with clear guidance on risk-reducing behaviors and testing to help them stay open safely.

A team led by the Consortia for Improving Medicine with Innovation and Technology (CIMIT) at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, developed the tool to model the costs and benefits of COVID-19 testing strategies for individual organizations. The team developed their mathematical model and calculator as part of NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) Tech program. The calculator is simple--a user enters a few specifics about their site and the tool produces customized scenarios for surveillance testing. The tool models four different COVID-19 testing methods, including onsite and lab-based, and calculates the number of people to test each day. It shows the estimated cost of each testing option and outlines the tradeoffs in the speed and accuracy of each kind of test.

“The NIH RADx initiative has enabled innovation and growth in the creation of new, rapid COVID-19 testing technologies,” said Bruce J. Tromberg, Ph.D., director of NIBIB and lead for the RADx Tech program. “Using this tool, school administrators and business owners can quickly evaluate the cost and performance of different tests to help find the best match for their unique organization.”

WhenToTest is a modeling tool that visually shows how different mitigation strategies can minimize the spread of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 Testing Impact Calculator also shows how other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended countermeasures, such as masks, contact tracing and social distancing, can work in concert with testing to keep people safe. Users enter which of these measures are in place in their organization and the tool integrates this information to produce testing recommendations. By adjusting these entries, users get a startling demonstration of how implementing simple countermeasures can drastically reduce their testing costs. For example, for a site that allows mask-less activities such as meetings or dining, reducing the group size on the calculator from 12 to six cuts the cost of the recommended testing strategy by more than half. Thus, the tool can inform leaders about how implementing these practices in addition to testing can keep their school or business open safely and with less expense.

Co-developer of the tool, Anette (Peko) Hosoi, Ph.D., is associate dean of engineering and the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. She also is an affiliate of the university’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), where students and researchers combine cutting-edge data analysis with social science methodology to tackle pressing societal challenges like the coronavirus pandemic.

“A false dichotomy is often perpetuated that we must either stop COVID or reopen the economy,” said Hosoi. “But we know a lot now about how this disease spreads and the answer is not an either/or proposition. We know what kinds of measures are necessary to keep things running and mitigate the spread while operating — maybe not under normal conditions, but certainly under functional conditions.”

Co-developer Paul Tessier, Ph.D., is product development director at CIMIT, the RADx Tech coordinating center.  “The calculator is a major enabler for test-technologies being developed, commercialized and deployed with help from the RADx Tech program,” Tessier said. He explained that implementing a testing program carries weighty considerations, including cost and number of testing instruments, arranging for test takers, and determining the optimal frequency for testing. “We are excited to join forces with MIT’s IDSS to advance a decision-making tool for operating safely.”

The COVID-19 Testing Impact Calculator is at www.whentotest.org

This project was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, National Institutes of Health, through the NIH RADx℠ Initiative via grant #U54EB015408 and contracts #75N92020P00132 and #75N92020P00171.

About the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADxSM) initiative: The RADx initiative was launched on April 29, 2020, to speed innovation in the development, commercialization, and implementation of technologies for COVID-19 testing. The initiative has four programs: RADx Tech, RADx Advanced Technology Platforms, RADx Underserved Populations and RADx Radical. It leverages the existing NIH Point-of-Care Technology Research Network. The RADx initiative partners with federal agencies, including the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health, Department of Defense, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Learn more about the RADx initiative and its programs: https://www.nih.gov/radx.