Which test is best? Frequent versus infrequent testing for the Omicron variant of COVID-19

Researchers from Osaka University compared the sensitivity of rapid antigen tests (RATs) and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for the Omicron variant of COVID-19 using data produced by the Japan Professional Football League. They found the comparative sensitivity of RATs for Omicron was not affected by the duration from the onset of symptoms to testing.

Sensitivity and specificity of rapid antigen tests compared with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. An error bar represents 95% confidence interval.

Researchers from Osaka University compare the sensitivity of RATs and PCR tests for the Omicron variant of COVID-19

Osaka, Japan - Testing plays a crucial role in humanity’s strategy to mitigate the effects of widespread COVID-19 infection. However, given multiple options for testing and the emergence of the highly contagious Omicron variant, how do we choose which test to use?

A study led by Osaka University recently found that the sensitivity of rapid antigen tests (RATs) for the Omicron variant of COVID-19 whencompared with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests was 0.63 and that this value was not affected by the duration from the onset of symptoms to testing. This finding suggested the possibility that, as with previous variants, frequent testing using RATs for the Omicron variant of COVID-19still outperformed infrequent testing using PCR tests. This is despite RATs requiring a larger amount of the virus to be present to return a correct positive result (i.e., lower sensitivity) when compared with PCR tests. However, RATs are also cheaper and produce results quickly.

Prior to the emergence of the Omicron variant, frequent testing using RATs was known to be a better strategy than infrequent testing using PCR tests. RATs detect infection early, which allows for swift isolation of individuals who are infected, thus preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“The sensitivity of the RATs was important information for setting up an effective testing system,” explains lead author Michio Murakami.

However, when the Omicron variant of COVID-19 emerged, the sensitivity of RATs for this variant was called into question, particularly during the crucial early stages of infection. If the sensitivity of RATs is low, then the advantages of RATs would be negated, requiring a rethink in testing strategy for combating the spread of infection.

Therefore, the researchers directly compared the sensitivity of RATs and PCR tests in cases of COVID-19 infection known to be caused by the Omicron variant.

“We used data collected from players and staff members of clubs belonging to the Japan Professional Football League,” explains co-author Seiya Imoto of The University of Tokyo. “This organization carried out RATs and PCR tests in the same person on the same day, making this data set uniquely useful to assess the comparative sensitivity of these tests.”

 The results showed that sensitivity was not associated with the duration of the onset of symptoms to testing in both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases. The researchers also found the sensitivity of RATs for the Omicron variant to be high enough to suggest the possibility that, when combined with other studies on the relationship between sensitivity or frequency of testing and its effectiveness in preventing infection, frequent testing using RATs, as opposed to less frequent testing using PCR tests, is still the right course of action.

 The study findings form an important knowledge base for assessing the effectiveness of a testing system using antigen qualitative tests. However, as the Omicron variant is more infectious than previous variants and has a shorter incubation time, the researchers point out that further testing and modeling are required to determine the most effective testing protocol.


 The article, “Sensitivity of rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 during the Omicron variant outbreak among players and staff members of the Japan Professional Football League and clubs: A retrospective observational study,” will be published in BMJ Open at DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2022-067591

About Osaka University

Osaka University was founded in 1931 as one of the seven imperial universities of Japan and is now one of Japan's leading comprehensive universities with a broad disciplinary spectrum. This strength is coupled with a singular drive for innovation that extends throughout the scientific process, from fundamental research to the creation of applied technology with positive economic impacts. Its commitment to innovation has been recognized in Japan and around the world, being named Japan's most innovative university in 2015 (Reuters 2015 Top 100) and one of the most innovative institutions in the world in 2017 (Innovative Universities and the Nature Index Innovation 2017). Now, Osaka University is leveraging its role as a Designated National University Corporation selected by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to contribute to innovation for human welfare, sustainable development of society, and social transformation.

Website: https://resou.osaka-u.ac.jp/en

Published: 30 Jan 2023


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Global Strategy Unit

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The Nippon Foundation -Osaka University Project for Infectious Disease Prevention