Open Forum Infect Dis. 2020 Aug 3;7(9):ofaa335. doi: 10.1093/ofid/ofaa335. eCollection 2020 Sep.
BACKGROUND: The performance of real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (rRT-PCR) for SARS-CoV-2 varies with sampling site(s), illness stage, and infection site.
METHODS: Unilateral nasopharyngeal, nasal midturbinate, throat swabs, and saliva were simultaneously sampled for SARS-CoV-2 rRT-PCR from suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19. True positives were defined as patients with at least 1 SARS-CoV-2 detected by rRT-PCR from any site on the evaluation day or at any time point thereafter, until discharge. Diagnostic performance was assessed and extrapolated for site combinations.
RESULTS: We evaluated 105 patients; 73 had active SARS-CoV-2 infection. Overall, nasopharyngeal specimens had the highest clinical sensitivity at 85%, followed by throat, 80%, midturbinate, 62%, and saliva, 38%-52%. Clinical sensitivity for nasopharyngeal, throat, midturbinate, and saliva was 95%, 88%, 72%, and 44%-56%, respectively, if taken ≤7 days from onset of illness, and 70%, 67%, 47%, 28%-44% if >7 days of illness. Comparing patients with upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) vs pneumonia, clinical sensitivity for nasopharyngeal, throat, midturbinate, and saliva was 92% vs 70%, 88% vs 61%, 70% vs 44%, 43%-54% vs 26%-45%, respectively. A combination of nasopharyngeal plus throat or midturbinate plus throat specimen afforded overall clinical sensitivities of 89%-92%; this rose to 96% for persons with URTI and 98% for persons ≤7 days from illness onset.
CONCLUSIONS: Nasopharyngeal specimens, followed by throat specimens, offer the highest clinical sensitivity for COVID-19 diagnosis in early illness. Clinical sensitivity improves and is similar when either midturbinate or nasopharyngeal specimens are combined with throat specimens. Upper respiratory specimens perform poorly if taken after the first week of illness or if there is pneumonia.