Recalibrating SARS-CoV-2 Antigen Rapid Lateral Flow Test Relative Sensitivity from Validation Studies to Absolute Sensitivity for Indicating Individuals Shedding Transmissible Virus

Clin Epidemiol. 2021 Oct 14;13:935-940. doi: 10.2147/CLEP.S311977. eCollection 2021.


Testing for SARS-CoV-2 internationally has focused on COVID-19 diagnosis among symptomatic individuals using reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. Recently, however, SARS-CoV-2 antigen rapid lateral flow tests (LFT) have been rolled out in several countries for testing asymptomatic individuals in public health programmes. Validation studies for LFT have been largely cross-sectional, reporting sensitivity, specificity and predictive values of LFT relative to PCR. However, because PCR detects genetic material left behind for a long period when the individual is no longer infectious, these statistics can under-represent the sensitivity of LFT for detecting infectious individuals, especially when sampling asymptomatic populations. LFTs (intended to detect individuals shedding SARS-CoV-2 antigens) validated against PCR (intended to diagnose infection) are not reporting against a gold standard of equivalent measurements. Instead, these validation studies have reported relative performance statistics that need recalibrating to the purpose for which LFT is being used. We present an approach to this recalibration. We derive a formula for recalibrating relative performance statistics from LFT vs PCR validation studies to give likely absolute sensitivity of LFT for detecting individuals who are shedding shedding SARS-CoV-2 antigens. We contrast widely reported apparent sensitivities of LFT with recalibrated absolute sensitivity for detecting individuals shedding SARS-CoV-2 antigens. After accounting for within-individual viral kinetics and epidemic dynamics within asymptomatic populations we show that a highly performant test for SARS-CoV-2 antigen should show LFT-to-PCR relative sensitivity of less than 50% in conventional validation studies, which after re-calibration would be an absolute sensitivity of more than 80%. Further studies are needed to ascertain the absolute sensitivity of LFT as a test of infectiousness in COVID-19 responses. These studies should include longitudinal series of LFT and PCR, ideally in cohorts sampled from both contacts of cases and the general population.

Keywords: PCR; lateral flow tests; rapid test; recalibration; validation.