Practical diagnostic accuracy of nasopharyngeal swab testing for novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Ravindra Gopaul, Joshua Davis, Linda Gangai, Lianna Goetz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Introduction: The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is the cause of COVID-19, which has had a devastating international impact. Prior reports of testing have reported low sensitivities of nasopharyngeal polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and reports of viral co-infections have varied from 0-20%. Therefore, we sought to determine the accuracy of nasopharyngeal PCR for COVID-19 and rates of viral co-infection. Methods: We conducted a retrospective chart review of all patients who received viral testing between March 1, 2020-April 28, 2020. Test results of a complete viral pathogen panel and COVID-19 testing were abstracted. We compared patients with more than one COVID-19 test for diagnostic accuracy against the gold standard of chart review. Results: We identified 1950 patients, of whom 1024 were tested for COVID-19. There were 221 repeat tests for COVID-19. Among patients with a repeat test, COVID-19 swabs had a sensitivity of 84.6% (95% confidence interval (CI), 69.5-94.4%) and a specificity of 99.5% (95%CI, 97-100%) compared to a clinical and radiographic criterion reference by chart review. We found viral co-infection rates of 2.3% in patients without COVID-19 and 6.1% in patients with COVID-19. Rates of co-infection appeared to be related to base rates of infection in the community and not a specific property of COVID-19. Conclusion: COVID-19 nasopharyngeal PCR specimens are accurate but have imperfect sensitivity. Repeat testing for high-risk patients should be considered, and presence of an alternative virus should not be used to limit testing for COVID-19 for patients where it would affect treatment or isolation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalWestern Journal of Emergency Medicine
Issue number6
StatePublished - Sep 28 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Emergency Medicine


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