Polymerase chain reaction for the diagnosis of HIV infection in adults. A meta-analysis with recommendations for clinical practice and study design

Ann Intern Med. 1996 May 1;124(9):803-15. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-124-9-199605010-00004.


Purpose: To do a meta-analysis of studies that have evaluated the sensitivity and specificity of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay for the diagnosis of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection in adults. Evaluating the performance of PCR is difficult because in certain clinical situations, the sensitivity or specificity of PCR may exceed those of the current reference standard tests (enzyme immunoassay followed by confirmatory Western blot analysis). Therefore, an additional goal was to develop recommendations for 1) the design of future evaluative studies of PCR and 2) the use of PCR in persons with suspected HIV infection.

Data sources: Studies published between 1988 and 1994 that were identified in a search of 17 computer databases, including MEDLINE, and abstracts identified from conference proceedings.

Study selection: Studies were included if DNA amplification by PCR was done on peripheral blood mononuclear cells from adults. Ninety-six studies met the inclusion criteria.

Data extraction: Data were extracted independently by two reviewers. Study design was assessed independently by two investigators blinded to study results.

Results: Reported sensitivities for PCR range from 10% to 100%, and specificities range from 40% to 100%. A summary receiver-operating characteristic curve based on all 96 studies has a maximum joint sensitivity and specificity (upper left point on the curve, where sensitivity equals specificity) of 97.0% to 98.1%. If the threshold value that defines a positive PCR result is chosen so that sensitivity is higher than 98.1%, specificity will decrease to less than 98.1%. Conversely, if the threshold value that defines a positive PCR result is chosen so that specificity is greater than 98.1%, sensitivity will decrease to less than 98.1%. If sensitivity and specificity are chosen to be equal, the corresponding false-positive rate is 1.9% to 3.0%. At the maximum joint sensitivity and specificity, the positive predictive value of PCR ranges from 34% to 85% as the prevalence of HIV increases from 1.0% to 10%. We identified seven areas in which study design could be modified to 1) reduce susceptibility to bias in estimates of the sensitivity and specificity of PCR and 2) to increase the generalizability of the study results. These modifications will also help to overcome methodologic problems created by the lack of a reference standard test.

Conclusions: The PCR assay is not sufficiently accurate to be used for the diagnosis of HIV infection without confirmation. Use of PCR for the diagnosis of HIV in adults should be limited to situations in which antibody tests are known to be insufficient. Future studies of PCR performance should be sufficiently large and should use adequate reference standard tests and standardized methods for the performance of PCR. Specimens should be evaluated by persons blinded to clinical status and to the results of other diagnostic tests for HIV infection.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • HIV Infections / diagnosis*
  • Humans
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction*
  • ROC Curve
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Research Design
  • Sensitivity and Specificity