Reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction versus chest computed tomography for detecting early symptoms of COVID-19. A diagnostic accuracy systematic review and meta-analysis

Sao Paulo Med J. 2020 Sep-Oct;138(5):422-432. doi: 10.1590/1516-3180.2020.034306072020.


Background: A positive real-time reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) for SARS CoV-2, from nasopharyngeal swabs, is the current gold standard diagnostic test for this virus and has sensitivity of 60-70%. Some studies have demonstrated a significant number of false-negative RT-PCR tests while displaying significant tomographic findings, in the early days of symptoms of COVID-19.

Objective: To compare accuracy between RT-PCR and computed tomography (CT) for detecting COVID-19 in the first week of its symptoms during the pandemic.

Design and setting: Systematic review of comparative studies of diagnostic accuracy within the Evidence-based Health Program of a federal university in São Paulo (SP), Brazil.

Methods: A systematic search of the relevant literature was conducted in the PubMed, EMBASE, Cochrane Library, CINAHL and LILACS databases, for articles published up to June 6, 2020, relating to studies evaluating the diagnostic accuracy of RT-PCR and chest CT for COVID-19 diagnoses. The QUADAS 2 tool was used for methodological quality evaluation.

Results: In total, 1204 patients with COVID-19 were evaluated; 1045 had tomographic findings while 755 showed positive RT-PCR for COVID-19. RT-PCR demonstrated 81.4% sensitivity, 100% specificity and 92.3% accuracy. Chest CT demonstrated 95.3% sensitivity, 43.8% specificity and 63.3% accuracy.

Conclusion: The high sensitivity and detection rates shown by CT demonstrate that this technique has a high degree of importance in the early stages of the disease. During an outbreak, the higher prevalence of the condition increases the positive predictive value of CT.

Registration number: DOI: 10.17605/OSF.IO/UNGHA in the Open Science Framework.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Betacoronavirus
  • Brazil
  • COVID-19
  • COVID-19 Testing
  • COVID-19 Vaccines
  • Clinical Laboratory Techniques / methods
  • Coronavirus Infections / diagnosis*
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • Pneumonia, Viral / diagnosis*
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed*