Background: Very little longitudinal information is available regarding the performance of T cell-based tests for Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection. To address this deficiency, we conducted a longitudinal assessment of the enzyme-linked immunosorbent spot test (ELISPOT) test in comparison to the standard tuberculin skin test (TST).
Methods and findings: In tuberculosis (TB) contacts we repeated ELISPOT tests 3 mo (n = 341) and 18 mo (n = 210) after recruitment and TSTs at 18 mo (n = 130). We evaluated factors for association with conversion and reversion and investigated suspected cases of TB. Of 207 ELISPOT-negative contacts, 51 (24.6%) had 3-mo ELISPOT conversion, which was associated with a positive recruitment TST (odds ratio [OR] 2.2, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.0-5.0, p = 0.048) and negatively associated with bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccination (OR 0.5, 95% CI 0.2-1.0, p = 0.06). Of 134 contacts, 54 (40.2%) underwent 3-mo ELISPOT reversion, which was less likely in those with a positive recruitment TST (OR 0.3, 95% CI 0.1-0.8, p = 0.014). Between 3 and 18 mo, 35/132 (26.5%) contacts underwent ELISPOT conversion and 28/78 (35.9%) underwent ELISPOT reversion. Of the 210 contacts with complete results, 73 (34.8%) were ELISPOT negative at all three time points; 36 (17.1%) were positive at all three time points. Between recruitment and 18 mo, 20 (27%) contacts had ELISPOT conversion; 37 (50%) had TST conversion, which was associated with a positive recruitment ELISPOT (OR 7.2, 95% CI 1.4-37.1, p = 0.019); 18 (32.7%) underwent ELISPOT reversion; and five (8.9%) underwent TST reversion. Results in 13 contacts diagnosed as having TB were mixed, but suggested higher TST sensitivity.
Conclusions: Both ELISPOT conversion and reversion occur after M. tuberculosis exposure. Rapid ELISPOT reversion may reflect M. tuberculosis clearance or transition into dormancy and may contribute to the relatively low reported ELISPOT conversion rate. Therefore, a negative ELISPOT test for M. tuberculosis infection should be interpreted with caution.