COVID-19 Evidence Alerts
from McMaster PLUSTM

Current best evidence for clinical care (more info)

Diagnosis, Primary Prevention Viswanathan M, Kahwati L, Jahn B, et al. Universal screening for SARS-CoV-2 infection: a rapid review. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020 Sep 15;9:CD013718. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD013718.

BACKGROUND: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is caused by the novel betacoronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2). Most people infected with SARS-CoV-2 have mild disease with unspecific symptoms, but about 5% become critically ill with respiratory failure, septic shock and multiple organ failure. An unknown proportion of infected individuals never experience COVID-19 symptoms although they are infectious, that is, they remain asymptomatic. Those who develop the disease, go through a presymptomatic period during which they are infectious. Universal screening for SARS-CoV-2 infections to detect individuals who are infected before they present clinically, could therefore be an important measure to contain the spread of the disease.

OBJECTIVES: We conducted a rapid review to assess (1) the effectiveness of universal screening for SARS-CoV-2 infection compared with no screening and (2) the accuracy of universal screening in people who have not presented to clinical care for symptoms of COVID-19.

SEARCH METHODS: An information specialist searched Ovid MEDLINE and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) COVID-19 Research Articles Downloadable Database up to 26 May 2020. We searched, the CENTRAL, and the Cochrane Covid-19 Study Register on 14 April 2020. We searched LitCovid to 4 April 2020. The World Health Organization (WHO) provided records from daily searches in Chinese databases and in PubMed up to 15 April 2020. We also searched three model repositories (Covid-Analytics, Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study [MIDAS], and Society for Medical Decision Making) on 8 April 2020.

SELECTION CRITERIA: Trials, observational studies, or mathematical modelling studies assessing screening effectiveness or screening accuracy among general populations in which the prevalence of SARS-CoV2 is unknown.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: After pilot testing review forms, one review author screened titles and abstracts. Two review authors independently screened the full text of studies and resolved any disagreements by discussion with a third review author. Abstracts excluded by a first review author were dually reviewed by a second review author prior to exclusion. One review author independently extracted data, which was checked by a second review author for completeness and accuracy. Two review authors independently rated the quality of included studies using the Quality Assessment of Diagnostic Accuracy Studies (QUADAS-2) tool for diagnostic accuracy studies and a modified form designed originally for economic evaluations for modelling studies. We resolved differences by consensus. We synthesized the evidence in narrative and tabular formats. We rated the certainty of evidence for days to outbreak, transmission, cases missed and detected, diagnostic accuracy (i.e. true positives, false positives, true negatives, false negatives) using the GRADE approach.

MAIN RESULTS: We included 22 publications. Two modelling studies reported on effectiveness of universal screening. Twenty studies (17 cohort studies and 3 modelling studies) reported on screening test accuracy. Effectiveness of screening We included two modelling studies. One study suggests that symptom screening at travel hubs, such as airports, may slightly slow but not stop the importation of infected cases (assuming 10 or 100 infected travellers per week reduced the delay in a local outbreak to 8 days or 1 day, respectively). We assessed risk of bias as minor or no concerns, and certainty of evidence was low, downgraded for very serious indirectness. The second modelling study provides very low-certainty evidence that screening of healthcare workers in emergency departments using laboratory tests may reduce transmission to patients and other healthcare workers (assuming a transmission constant of 1.2 new infections per 10,000 people, weekly screening reduced infections by 5.1% within 30 days). The certainty of evidence was very low, downgraded for high risk of bias (major concerns) and indirectness. No modelling studies reported on harms of screening. Screening test accuracy All 17 cohort studies compared an index screening strategy to a reference reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test. All but one study reported on the accuracy of single point-in-time screening and varied widely in prevalence of SARS-CoV-2, settings, and methods of measurement. We assessed the overall risk of bias as unclear in 16 out of 17 studies, mainly due to limited information on the index test and reference standard. We rated one study as being at high risk of bias due to the inclusion of two separate populations with likely different prevalences. For several screening strategies, the estimates of sensitivity came from small samples. For single point-in-time strategies, for symptom assessment, the sensitivity from 12 cohorts (524 people) ranged from 0.00 to 0.60 (very low-certainty evidence) and the specificity from 12 cohorts (16,165 people) ranged from 0.66 to 1.00 (low-certainty evidence). For screening using direct temperature measurement (3 cohorts, 822 people), international travel history (2 cohorts, 13,080 people), or exposure to known infected people (3 cohorts, 13,205 people) or suspected infected people (2 cohorts, 954 people), sensitivity ranged from 0.00 to 0.23 (very low- to low-certainty evidence) and specificity ranged from 0.90 to 1.00 (low- to moderate-certainty evidence). For symptom assessment plus direct temperature measurement (2 cohorts, 779 people), sensitivity ranged from 0.12 to 0.69 (very low-certainty evidence) and specificity from 0.90 to 1.00 (low-certainty evidence). For rapid PCR test (1 cohort, 21 people), sensitivity was 0.80 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.44 to 0.96; very low-certainty evidence) and specificity was 0.73 (95% CI 0.39 to 0.94; very low-certainty evidence). One cohort (76 people) reported on repeated screening with symptom assessment and demonstrates a sensitivity of 0.44 (95% CI 0.29 to 0.59; very low-certainty evidence) and specificity of 0.62 (95% CI 0.42 to 0.79; low-certainty evidence). Three modelling studies evaluated the accuracy of screening at airports. The main outcomes measured were cases missed or detected by entry or exit screening, or both, at airports. One study suggests very low sensitivity at 0.30 (95% CI 0.1 to 0.53), missing 70% of infected travellers. Another study described an unrealistic scenario to achieve a 90% detection rate, requiring 0% asymptomatic infections. The final study provides very uncertain evidence due to low methodological quality.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: The evidence base for the effectiveness of screening comes from two mathematical modelling studies and is limited by their assumptions. Low-certainty evidence suggests that screening at travel hubs may slightly slow the importation of infected cases. This review highlights the uncertainty and variation in accuracy of screening strategies. A high proportion of infected individuals may be missed and go on to infect others, and some healthy individuals may be falsely identified as positive, requiring confirmatory testing and potentially leading to the unnecessary isolation of these individuals. Further studies need to evaluate the utility of rapid laboratory tests, combined screening, and repeated screening. More research is also needed on reference standards with greater accuracy than RT-PCR. Given the poor sensitivity of existing approaches, our findings point to the need for greater emphasis on other ways that may prevent transmission such as face coverings, physical distancing, quarantine, and adequate personal protective equipment for frontline workers.

Discipline / Specialty Area Score
General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)
Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)
Hospital Doctor/Hospitalists
Internal Medicine
Infectious Disease
Occupational and Environmental Health
Public Health
Pediatric Hospital Medicine
Emergency Medicine
Pediatrics (General)
Comments from MORE raters

Emergency Medicine rater

This is an interesting analysis of the impact of universal COVID-19 screening. The analysis relies on imprecise estimates and so provides only low quality data. Also, it's not directly relevant to emergency medicine.

Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP) rater

Although this seems to be a well done study, the quality of the evidence found is not likely high enough to lead to a change in practice.

Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP) rater

This is useful especially in the population health level.

Hospital Doctor/Hospitalists rater

In spite of the stated limitations, this is a useful study if only to emphasize that the current screening methods are inadequate.

Occupational and Environmental Health rater

The information is very interesting; however the manuscripts included in the review are from May 2020; there is much new information on this topic. The conclusions on sensitivity and specificity in rapid laboratory tests could be different in this time.

Pediatric Hospital Medicine rater

A changing environment in testing means that we will have effective and sensitive testing on the horizon. No test should be expected to be 100% accurate. These studies should emphasise the positive rather than spending too much time on the negatives of each test.

Public Health rater

A review of very limited data.