Nasal-Swab Testing Misses Patients with Low SARS-CoV-2 Viral Loads

Link to article at PubMed

Callahan C, et al. medRxiv 2020.


The urgent need for large-scale diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2 has prompted pursuit of sample-collection methods of sufficient sensitivity to replace sampling of the nasopharynx (NP). Among these alternatives is collection of nasal-swab samples, which can be performed by the patient, avoiding the need for healthcare personnel and personal protective equipment. Previous studies have reached opposing conclusions regarding whether nasal sampling is concordant or discordant with NP. To resolve this disagreement, we compared nasal and NP specimens collected by healthcare workers in a cohort consisting of individuals clinically suspected of COVID-19 and outpatients known to be SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR positive undergoing follow-up. We investigated three different transport conditions, including traditional viral transport media (VTM) and dry swabs, for each of two different nasal-swab collection protocols on a total of 308 study participants, and compared categorical results and Ct values to those from standard NP swabs collected at the same time from the same patients. All testing was performed by RT-PCR on the Abbott SARS-CoV-2 RealTime EUA (limit of detection [LoD], 100 copies viral genomic RNA/mL transport medium). We found high concordance (Cohen's kappa >0.8) only for patients with viral loads above 1,000 copies/mL. Those with viral loads below 1,000 copies/mL, the majority in our cohort, exhibited low concordance (Cohen's kappa = 0.49); most of these would have been missed by nasal testing alone. Previous reports of high concordance may have resulted from use of assays with higher LoD (≥1,000 copies/mL). These findings counsel caution in use of nasal testing in healthcare settings and contact-tracing efforts, as opposed to screening of asymptomatic, low-prevalence, low-risk populations. Nasal testing is an adjunct, not a replacement, for NP.

PMID:32587981 | PMC:PMC7310639 | DOI:10.1101/2020.06.12.20128736

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