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False positives in reverse transcription PCR testing for SARS-CoV-2

By Andrew N Cohen, Bruce Kessel, Michael G Milgroom

Posted 01 May 2020
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.04.26.20080911

Contrary to the practice during previous epidemics, with COVID-19 health authorities have treated a single positive result from a PCR-based test as confirmation of infection, irrespective of signs, symptoms and exposure. This is based on a widespread belief that positive results in these tests are highly reliable. However, evidence from external quality assessments and real-world data indicate enough a high enough false positive rate to make positive results highly unreliable over a broad range of scenarios. This has clinical and case management implications, and affects an array of epidemiological statistics, including the asymptomatic ratio, prevalence, and hospitalization and death rates, as well as epidemiologic models. Steps should be taken to raise awareness of false positives and reduce their frequency. The most important immediate action is to check positive results with additional tests, at least when prevalence is low.

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