Broad respiratory testing to identify SARS-CoV-2 viral co-circulation and inform diagnostic stewardship in the COVID-19 pandemic

Virol J. 2021 May 1;18(1):93. doi: 10.1186/s12985-021-01545-9.


Background: SARS-CoV-2 infection can present with a broad clinical differential that includes many other respiratory viruses; therefore, accurate tests are crucial to distinguish true COVID-19 cases from pathogens that do not require urgent public health interventions. Co-circulation of other respiratory viruses is largely unknown during the COVID-19 pandemic but would inform strategies to rapidly and accurately test patients with respiratory symptoms.

Methods: This study retrospectively examined 298,415 respiratory specimens collected from symptomatic patients for SARS-CoV-2 testing in the three months since COVID-19 was initially documented in the province of Alberta, Canada (March-May, 2020). By focusing on 52,285 specimens that were also tested with the Luminex Respiratory Pathogen Panel for 17 other pathogens, this study examines the prevalence of 18 potentially co-circulating pathogens and their relative rates in prior years versus since COVID-19 emerged, including four endemic coronaviruses.

Results: SARS-CoV-2 was identified in 2.2% of all specimens. Parallel broad multiplex testing detected additional pathogens in only 3.4% of these SARS-CoV-2-positive specimens: significantly less than in SARS-CoV-2-negative specimens (p < 0.0001), suggesting very low rates of SARS-CoV-2 co-infection. Furthermore, the overall co-infection rate was significantly lower among specimens with SARS-CoV-2 detected (p < 0.0001). Finally, less than 0.005% of all specimens tested positive for both SARS-CoV-2 and any of the four endemic coronaviruses tested, strongly suggesting neither co-infection nor cross-reactivity between these coronaviruses.

Conclusions: Broad respiratory pathogen testing rarely detected additional pathogens in SARS-CoV-2-positive specimens. While helpful to understand co-circulation of respiratory viruses causing similar symptoms as COVID-19, ultimately these broad tests were resource-intensive and inflexible in a time when clinical laboratories face unprecedented demand for respiratory virus testing, with further increases expected during influenza season. A transition from broad, multiplex tests toward streamlined diagnostic algorithms targeting respiratory pathogens of public health concern could simultaneously reduce the overall burden on clinical laboratories while prioritizing testing of pathogens of public health importance. This is particularly valuable with ongoing strains on testing resources, exacerbated during influenza seasons.

Keywords: COVID-19; Coronavirus 229E, human; Coronavirus NL63, human; Coronavirus OC43, human; Diagnostic stewardship; Endemic coronaviruses; Multiplex testing; Respiratory viruses; SARS-CoV-2.

MeSH terms

  • Alberta / epidemiology
  • COVID-19 / diagnosis*
  • COVID-19 Testing / methods*
  • Canada / epidemiology
  • Coinfection / epidemiology*
  • Coronavirus / isolation & purification
  • Coronavirus 229E, Human / isolation & purification
  • Coronavirus NL63, Human / isolation & purification
  • Coronavirus OC43, Human / isolation & purification
  • Cross Reactions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Orthomyxoviridae / isolation & purification
  • Pandemics
  • Prevalence
  • Retrospective Studies
  • SARS-CoV-2 / isolation & purification*