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Background Community surveys of SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR swab-positivity provide prevalence estimates largely unaffected by biases from who presents for routine case testing. The REal-time Assessment of Community Transmission-1(REACT-1) has estimated swab-positivity approximately monthly since May 2020 in England from RT-PCR testing of self-administered throat and nose swabs in random non-overlapping cross-sectional community samples. Estimating infection incidence from swab-positivity requires an understanding of the persistence of RT-PCR swab positivity in the community. Methods During round 8 of REACT-1 from 6 January to 22 January 2021, of the 2,282 participants who tested RT-PCR positive, we recruited 896 (39%) from whom we collected up to two additional swabs for RT-PCR approximately 6 and 9 days after the initial swab. We estimated sensitivity and duration of positivity using an exponential model of positivity decay, for all participants and for subsets by initial N-gene cycle threshold (Ct) value, symptom status, lineage and age. Estimates of infection incidence were obtained for the entire duration of the REACT-1 study using P-splines. Results We estimated the overall sensitivity of REACT-1 to detect virus on a single swab as 0.79 (0.77, 0.81) and median duration of positivity following a positive test as 9.7 (8.9, 10.6) days. We found greater median duration of positivity where there was a low N-gene Ct value, in those exhibiting symptoms, or for infection with the Alpha variant. The estimated proportion of positive individuals detected on first swab, P0, was found to be higher for those with an initially low N-gene Ct value and those who were pre-symptomatic. When compared to swab-positivity, estimates of infection incidence over the duration of REACT-1 included sharper features with evident transient increases around the time of key changes in social distancing measures. Discussion Home self-swabbing for RT-PCR based on a single swab, as implemented in REACT-1, has high overall sensitivity. However, participants' time-since-infection, symptom status and viral lineage affect the probability of detection and the duration of positivity. These results validate previous efforts to estimate incidence of SARS-CoV-2 from swab-positivity data, and provide a reliable means to obtain community infection estimates to inform policy response.

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