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BackgroundSARS-CoV-2 antigen-detection rapid diagnostic tests can diagnose COVID-19 rapidly and at low cost, but lower sensitivity compared with reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (PCR) has limited clinical adoption.MethodsWe compared antigen testing, PCR testing, and clinical judgment alone for diagnosing symptomatic COVID-19 in an outpatient setting (10% COVID-19 prevalence among the patients tested, 3-day PCR turnaround) and a hospital setting (40% prevalence, 24-hour PCR turnaround). We simulated transmission from cases and contacts, and relationships between time, viral burden, transmission, and case detection. We compared diagnostic approaches using a measure of net benefit that incorporated both clinical and public health benefits and harms of the intervention.ResultsIn the outpatient setting, we estimated that using antigen testing instead of PCR to test 200 individuals could be equivalent to preventing all symptomatic transmission from one person with COVID-19 (one "transmission-equivalent"). In a hospital, net benefit analysis favored PCR and testing 25 patients with PCR instead of antigen testing achieved one transmission-equivalent of benefit. In both settings, antigen testing was preferable to PCR if PCR turnaround time exceeded 2 days. Both tests provided greater net benefit than management based on clinical judgment alone unless intervention carried minimal harm and was provided equally regardless of diagnostic approach.ConclusionsFor diagnosis of symptomatic COVID-19, we estimated that the speed of diagnosis with antigen testing is likely to outweigh its lower accuracy compared with PCR, wherever PCR turnaround time is 2 days or longer. This advantage may be even greater if antigen tests are also less expensive.

Original publication




Journal article


Epidemiology (Cambridge, Mass.)

Publication Date





811 - 819


From the Division of Infectious Diseases, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD.


Humans, Diagnostic Techniques and Procedures, Diagnostic Tests, Routine, Sensitivity and Specificity, COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2