PLoS One. 2021 May 21;16(5):e0251661. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0251661. eCollection 2021.
BACKGROUND: Understanding the false negative rates of SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR testing is pivotal for the management of the COVID-19 pandemic and it has implications for patient management. Our aim was to determine the real-life clinical sensitivity of SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR.
METHODS: This population-based retrospective study was conducted in March-April 2020 in the Helsinki Capital Region, Finland. Adults who were clinically suspected of SARS-CoV-2 infection and underwent SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR testing, with sufficient data in their medical records for grading of clinical suspicion were eligible. In addition to examining the first RT-PCR test of repeat-tested individuals, we also used high clinical suspicion for COVID-19 as the reference standard for calculating the sensitivity of SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR.
RESULTS: All 1,194 inpatients (mean [SD] age, 63.2 [18.3] years; 45.2% women) admitted to COVID-19 cohort wards during the study period were included. The outpatient cohort of 1,814 individuals (mean [SD] age, 45.4 [17.2] years; 69.1% women) was sampled from epidemiological line lists by systematic quasi-random sampling. The sensitivity (95% CI) for laboratory confirmed cases (repeat-tested patients) was 85.7% (81.5-89.1%) inpatients; 95.5% (92.2-97.5%) outpatients, 89.9% (88.2-92.1%) all. When also patients that were graded as high suspicion but never tested positive were included in the denominator, the sensitivity (95% CI) was: 67.5% (62.9-71.9%) inpatients; 34.9% (31.4-38.5%) outpatients; 47.3% (44.4-50.3%) all.
CONCLUSIONS: The clinical sensitivity of SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR testing was only moderate at best. The relatively high false negative rates of SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR testing need to be accounted for in clinical decision making, epidemiological interpretations, and when using RT-PCR as a reference for other tests.