Time variation in the probability of failing to detect a case of polymerase chain reaction testing for SARS-CoV-2 as estimated from a viral dynamics model.


Viral tests including polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are recommended to diagnose COVID-19 infection during the acute phase of infection. A test should have high sensitivity; however, the sensitivity of the PCR test is highly influenced by viral load, which changes over time. Because it is difficult to collect data before the onset of symptoms, the current literature on the sensitivity of the PCR test before symptom onset is limited. In this study, we used a viral dynamics model to track the probability of failing to detect a case of PCR testing over time, including the presymptomatic period. The model was parametrized by using longitudinal viral load data collected from 30 hospitalized patients. The probability of failing to detect a case decreased toward symptom onset, and the lowest probability was observed 2 days after symptom onset and increased afterwards. The probability on the day of symptom onset was 1.0% (95% CI: 0.5 to 1.9) and that 2 days before symptom onset was 60.2% (95% CI: 57.1 to 63.2). Our study suggests that the diagnosis of COVID-19 by PCR testing should be done carefully, especially when the test is performed before or way after symptom onset. Further study is needed of patient groups with potentially different viral dynamics, such as asymptomatic cases.

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