BACKGROUND: Accurate rapid diagnostic tests for SARS-CoV-2 infection would be a useful tool to help manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Testing strategies that use rapid antigen tests to detect current infection have the potential to increase access to testing, speed detection of infection, and inform clinical and public health management decisions to reduce transmission. This is the second update of this review, which was first published in 2020.
OBJECTIVES: To assess the diagnostic accuracy of rapid, point-of-care antigen tests for diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 infection. We consider accuracy separately in symptomatic and asymptomatic population groups. Sources of heterogeneity investigated included setting and indication for testing, assay format, sample site, viral load, age, timing of test, and study design.
SEARCH METHODS: We searched the COVID-19 Open Access Project living evidence database from the University of Bern (which includes daily updates from PubMed and Embase and preprints from medRxiv and bioRxiv) on 08 March 2021. We included independent evaluations from national reference laboratories, FIND and the Diagnostics Global Health website. We did not apply language restrictions.
SELECTION CRITERIA: We included studies of people with either suspected SARS-CoV-2 infection, known SARS-CoV-2 infection or known absence of infection, or those who were being screened for infection. We included test accuracy studies of any design that evaluated commercially produced, rapid antigen tests. We included evaluations of single applications of a test (one test result reported per person) and evaluations of serial testing (repeated antigen testing over time). Reference standards for presence or absence of infection were any laboratory-based molecular test (primarily reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR)) or pre-pandemic respiratory sample.
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We used standard screening procedures with three people. Two people independently carried out quality assessment (using the QUADAS-2 tool) and extracted study results. Other study characteristics were extracted by one review author and checked by a second. We present sensitivity and specificity with 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for each test, and pooled data using the bivariate model. We investigated heterogeneity by including indicator variables in the random-effects logistic regression models. We tabulated results by test manufacturer and compliance with manufacturer instructions for use and according to symptom status.
MAIN RESULTS: We included 155 study cohorts (described in 166 study reports, with 24 as preprints). The main results relate to 152 evaluations of single test applications including 100,462 unique samples (16,822 with confirmed SARS-CoV-2). Studies were mainly conducted in Europe (101/152, 66%), and evaluated 49 different commercial antigen assays. Only 23 studies compared two or more brands of test. Risk of bias was high because of participant selection (40, 26%); interpretation of the index test (6, 4%); weaknesses in the reference standard for absence of infection (119, 78%); and participant flow and timing 41 (27%). Characteristics of participants (45, 30%) and index test delivery (47, 31%) differed from the way in which and in whom the test was intended to be used. Nearly all studies (91%) used a single RT-PCR result to define presence or absence of infection. The 152 studies of single test applications reported 228 evaluations of antigen tests. Estimates of sensitivity varied considerably between studies, with consistently high specificities. Average sensitivity was higher in symptomatic (73.0%, 95% CI 69.3% to 76.4%; 109 evaluations; 50,574 samples, 11,662 cases) compared to asymptomatic participants (54.7%, 95% CI 47.7% to 61.6%; 50 evaluations; 40,956 samples, 2641 cases). Average sensitivity was higher in the first week after symptom onset (80.9%, 95% CI 76.9% to 84.4%; 30 evaluations, 2408 cases) than in the second week of symptoms (53.8%, 95% CI 48.0% to 59.6%; 40 evaluations, 1119 cases). For those who were asymptomatic at the time of testing, sensitivity was higher when an epidemiological exposure to SARS-CoV-2 was suspected (64.3%, 95% CI 54.6% to 73.0%; 16 evaluations; 7677 samples, 703 cases) compared to where COVID-19 testing was reported to be widely available to anyone on presentation for testing (49.6%, 95% CI 42.1% to 57.1%; 26 evaluations; 31,904 samples, 1758 cases). Average specificity was similarly high for symptomatic (99.1%) or asymptomatic (99.7%) participants. We observed a steady decline in summary sensitivities as measures of sample viral load decreased. Sensitivity varied between brands. When tests were used according to manufacturer instructions, average sensitivities by brand ranged from 34.3% to 91.3% in symptomatic participants (20 assays with eligible data) and from 28.6% to 77.8% for asymptomatic participants (12 assays). For symptomatic participants, summary sensitivities for seven assays were 80% or more (meeting acceptable criteria set by the World Health Organization (WHO)). The WHO acceptable performance criterion of 97% specificity was met by 17 of 20 assays when tests were used according to manufacturer instructions, 12 of which demonstrated specificities above 99%. For asymptomatic participants the sensitivities of only two assays approached but did not meet WHO acceptable performance standards in one study each; specificities for asymptomatic participants were in a similar range to those observed for symptomatic people. At 5% prevalence using summary data in symptomatic people during the first week after symptom onset, the positive predictive value (PPV) of 89% means that 1 in 10 positive results will be a false positive, and around 1 in 5 cases will be missed. At 0.5% prevalence using summary data for asymptomatic people, where testing was widely available and where epidemiological exposure to COVID-19 was suspected, resulting PPVs would be 38% to 52%, meaning that between 2 in 5 and 1 in 2 positive results will be false positives, and between 1 in 2 and 1 in 3 cases will be missed.
AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: Antigen tests vary in sensitivity. In people with signs and symptoms of COVID-19, sensitivities are highest in the first week of illness when viral loads are higher. Assays that meet appropriate performance standards, such as those set by WHO, could replace laboratory-based RT-PCR when immediate decisions about patient care must be made, or where RT-PCR cannot be delivered in a timely manner. However, they are more suitable for use as triage to RT-PCR testing. The variable sensitivity of antigen tests means that people who test negative may still be infected. Many commercially available rapid antigen tests have not been evaluated in independent validation studies. Evidence for testing in asymptomatic cohorts has increased, however sensitivity is lower and there is a paucity of evidence for testing in different settings. Questions remain about the use of antigen test-based repeat testing strategies. Further research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of screening programmes at reducing transmission of infection, whether mass screening or targeted approaches including schools, healthcare setting and traveller screening.
Bibliographical noteCopyright © 2022 The Authors. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. on behalf of The Cochrane Collaboration.
- COVID-19 Testing
- Point-of-Care Systems
- Sensitivity and Specificity