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Health and Fitness

How common are false-negative RT-PCR results in COVID-19 patients?

You are seated close to someone who is coronavirus-infected. As they exhale and you inhale. Some of their virus particles bind to the cells lining your nose and upper airways, allowing them to enter. Nonetheless, if a PCR test were performed at this stage, the result would very certainly be unfavorable. Why?

At the start of any viral infection, including COVID-19. There is a period known as the “latent period” during which an individual is infected but unable to transmit the virus to others. Additionally, there is an “incubation time” before they exhibit symptoms. They overlap to varying degrees depending on the virus. For example, those infected with Ebola exhibit symptoms before becoming contagious. Whereas individuals infected with COVID-19 typically become infectious before developing symptoms — and many individuals never develop symptoms. This is why COVID-19 is so difficult to contain — the most effective remedy (quarantine) is sometimes implemented too late. As individuals are unaware they are infected due to the delayed onset of symptoms. COVID-19 has an average incubation period of 5-6 days (but it can last up to 14 days). Researchers estimate that persons become infectious 2-3 days before symptoms manifest.

Read More: is delmicron a new variant of covid-19

Less sensitive lateral flow or rapid-antigen tests require a more significant viral load to provide a positive result. This is why they frequently identify individuals only during their most infectious phase.

The virus’s replication rate determines the precise timing of these events once it infects cells. And whether these cells are involved in transmitting the virus to other people – as well as the amount of virus to which the person was initially exposed. The method of exposure, their biological susceptibility to that type of virus, and their immune response.

Similar factors may influence when individuals test positive for the virus via diagnostic techniques such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or lateral flow.


While PCR tests are commonly recognized as the gold standard for diagnosing SARS-CoV-2, they are not flawless. In addition, their probability of detecting an infection varies according to the time of the test. PCR test performed to confirm a coronavirus infection in someone who has just acquired COVID-19-like symptoms is more likely to identify viral RNA than a test performed on someone infected the day before or several weeks earlier.

The rigor with which material was taken from the nose and throat may also affect the likelihood of an infected person testing negative (a false negative) – with home tests being less reliable than those performed by professionals.

When carried out in a laboratory setting, the US Government believes that PCR testing should never produce more than 5% false positives or negatives. However, investigations conducted under real-world situations indicate that false negatives may be more prevalent.

In a recent investigation, Chinese researchers attempted to contact all close contacts of individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 but were otherwise harmful and offered them to participate in an antibody test. The results indicated that 48 (36%) of 134 affected close contacts were overlooked by PCR tests. “Even thorough [PCR testing] techniques may miss a significant proportion of SARS-CoV-2 infections, possibly as a result of problems in finding the appropriate timing of testing in asymptomatic individuals,” the scientists stated. Despite these testing limitations. The authors acknowledged that the entire control effort (which included tight quarantine procedures following exposure) effectively contained the virus’s spread.


Another study calculated that the probability of an infected person testing damaging incorrectly on the day they contracted the virus was 100% on the day they contracted the virus but decreased to 67% by day four of infection. If they did the test on day five. The typical day patients develop symptoms, the likelihood of receiving a false negative result was 38%, reducing to 20% three days later (or day eight since exposure).

These findings emphasize the importance of remaining vigilant if you have come into touch with an infected person. Even if you test negative initially. They also emphasize the importance of a multi-pronged control strategy, including quarantine measures for those infected. And explain why many countries require travelers to undergo two PCR tests – one shortly before or after arrival. Other several days later, in case the first test misses the virus.


Finally, PCR tests can detect minute amounts of viral RNA – even from inactivated or “dead” viruses. They may continue to yield a “positive” result even after the era of contagiousness has passed. According to a recent study published in The Lancet Microbe. Most people have no live virus in their bodies nine days after the onset of symptoms — even if they continue to shed viral RNA for weeks, if not months, afterward. Thus, a positive PCR result does not always indicate that you can transmit the virus to others. Due to the difficulties in determining whether asymptomatic individuals are infectious. It is critical to self-isolate for the recommended quarantine time in your area (often 10-14 days) following a positive PCR test result to avoid infecting others.

In diagnostic terminology, a ‘false negative’ occurs when a person has a specific condition, yet the diagnostic test for that disease fails to identify it.

This can occur if the technology utilized in the test is insufficiently accurate, specific, or sensitive to detect the disease. This can also occur if the technician is performing the test incorrectly. If the chemicals used are of poor quality. Even if the technique is sound and the sample was taken correctly. The sample may have been delivered to the lab in unsanitary conditions.

Additionally, as previously stated, false-negative test results might arise if the sample was not obtained at the appropriate moment during the illness.

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