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Effectiveness of tests to detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 virus, and antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, to inform COVID-19 diagnosis: a rapid systematic review
  1. David Jarrom1,
  2. Lauren Elston1,
  3. Jennifer Washington1,
  4. Matthew Prettyjohns1,
  5. Kimberley Cann1,2,
  6. Susan Myles1,
  7. Peter Groves1
  1. 1Health Technology Wales, Velindre NHS Trust, Cardiff, UK
  2. 2Local Public Health Team, Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board, Abercynon, Rhondda Cynon Taf, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr David Jarrom, Health Technology Wales, Velindre NHS Trust, Cardiff, UK; david.jarrom{at}


Objectives We undertook a rapid systematic review with the aim of identifying evidence that could be used to answer the following research questions: (1) What is the clinical effectiveness of tests that detect the presence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) to inform COVID-19 diagnosis? (2) What is the clinical effectiveness of tests that detect the presence of antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 virus to inform COVID-19 diagnosis?

Design and setting Systematic review and meta-analysis of studies of diagnostic test accuracy. We systematically searched for all published evidence on the effectiveness of tests for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 virus, or antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, up to 4 May 2020, and assessed relevant studies for risks of bias using the QUADAS-2 framework.

Main outcome measures Measures of diagnostic accuracy (sensitivity, specificity, positive/negative predictive value) were the main outcomes of interest. We also included studies that reported influence of testing on subsequent patient management, and that reported virus/antibody detection rates where these facilitated comparisons of testing in different settings, different populations or using different sampling methods.

Results 38 studies on SARS-CoV-2 virus testing and 25 studies on SARS-CoV-2 antibody testing were identified. We identified high or unclear risks of bias in the majority of studies, most commonly as a result of unclear methods of patient selection and test conduct, or because of the use of a reference standard that may not definitively diagnose COVID-19. The majority were in hospital settings, in patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection. Pooled analysis of 16 studies (3818 patients) estimated a sensitivity of 87.8% (95% CI 81.5% to 92.2%) for an initial reverse-transcriptase PCR test. For antibody tests, 10 studies reported diagnostic accuracy outcomes: sensitivity ranged from 18.4% to 96.1% and specificity 88.9% to 100%. However, the lack of a true reference standard for SARS-CoV-2 diagnosis makes it challenging to assess the true diagnostic accuracy of these tests. Eighteen studies reporting different sampling methods suggest that for virus tests, the type of sample obtained/type of tissue sampled could influence test accuracy. Finally, we searched for, but did not identify, any evidence on how any test influences subsequent patient management.

Conclusions Evidence is rapidly emerging on the effectiveness of tests for COVID-19 diagnosis and management, but important uncertainties about their effectiveness and most appropriate application remain. Estimates of diagnostic accuracy should be interpreted bearing in mind the absence of a definitive reference standard to diagnose or rule out COVID-19 infection. More evidence is needed about the effectiveness of testing outside of hospital settings and in mild or asymptomatic cases. Implementation of public health strategies centred on COVID-19 testing provides opportunities to explore these important areas of research.

  • evidence-based practice
  • health services research
  • infectious disease medicine
  • respiratory tract infections
  • public health

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  • Contributors DJ, MP, SM and PG conceived the project and prepared the review inclusion and exclusion criteria. JW prepared and ran search strategies with input from DJ. DJ and LE screened evidence, extracted data from relevant studies and carried out risk of bias assessments; data were independently checked by KC. DJ and MP analysed data to generate outcomes. DJ, LE, JW and PG wrote the manuscript with input and editing from all other authors.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data sharing not applicable as no datasets generated and/or analysed for this study.

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