31 Mar Sensitivity of Chest CT for COVID-19: Comparison to RT-PCR
Noncontrast chest CT may be considered for early diagnosis of viral disease, although viral nucleic acid detection using real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) remains the standard of reference. The purpose of a study published in Radiology was to compare the sensitivity of chest CT and viral nucleic acid assay at initial patient presentation.
51 patients (29 men and 22 women) were included with median age of 45 years. All patients had throat swab (45 patients) or sputum samples (6 patients) followed by one or more RT-PCR assays. The average time from initial disease onset to CT was 3 +/- 3 days; the average time from initial disease onset to RT-PCR testing was 3 +/- 3 days. 36/51 patients had initial positive RT-PCR for COVID-19. 12/51 patients had COVID-19 confirmed by two RT-PCR nucleic acid tests (1 to 2 days), 2 patients by three tests (2-5 days) and 1 patient by four tests (7 days) after initial onset.
50/51 (98%) patients had evidence of abnormal CT compatible with viral pneumonia at baseline while one patient had a normal CT. Of 50 patients with abnormal CT, 36 (72%) had typical CT manifestations (e.g. peripheral, subpleural ground glass opacities, often in the lower lobe and 14 (28%) had atypical CT manifestations. In this patient sample, difference in detection rate for initial CT (50/51 [98%, 95% CI 90-100%]) patients was greater than first RT-PCR (36/51 [71%, 95%CI 56-83%]) patients (p<.001).
In this study, the sensitivity of chest CT was greater than that of RT-PCR (98% vs 71%, respectively, p<.001). The reasons for the low efficiency of viral nucleic acid detection may include: 1) immature development of nucleic acid detection technology; 2) variation in detection rate from different manufacturers; 3) low patient viral load; or 4) improper clinical sampling. The reasons for the relatively lower RT-PCR detection rate in our sample compared to a prior report are unknown. The results support the use of chest CT for screening for COVD-19 for patients with clinical and epidemiologic features compatible with COVID-19 infection particularly when RT-PCR testing is negative.