SARS-CoV-2 PCR Test-Introduction, Test Result, Test Method, Clinical Significance, and Keynotes


The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test is a molecular diagnostic technique used to detect the genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in individuals suspected of having COVID-19. This test plays a crucial role in identifying active infections and has been instrumental in the global efforts to control the spread of the virus.

Here’s how the SARS-CoV-2 PCR test works:

  1. Sample Collection: A swab is taken from the back of the throat (or nasopharyngeal swab) or from the nasal passages (nasal swab) of the individual. This swab collects cells and secretions from the respiratory tract, which may contain the genetic material of the virus if the person is infected.
  2. RNA Extraction: The collected swab is then processed in a laboratory to extract the ribonucleic acid (RNA) from the collected cells. RNA is the genetic material of the virus, and detecting it is crucial for identifying an active infection.
  3. Reverse Transcription: Since the SARS-CoV-2 virus is an RNA virus, the extracted RNA needs to be converted into complementary DNA (cDNA) using a process called reverse transcription. This step is necessary for further amplification through PCR.
  4. Amplification: The cDNA is then subjected to the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a technique that rapidly increases the amount of DNA in the sample. Specific primers that target unique regions of the SARS-CoV-2 genome are used. If the virus’s genetic material is present in the sample, the primers will bind to it.
  5. Detection: Fluorescent probes are used in the PCR reaction. These probes emit a fluorescent signal when they bind to the amplified viral genetic material. The fluorescence indicates the presence of the virus’s RNA in the sample.
  6. Analysis: The level of fluorescence is monitored during the PCR cycles. If the fluorescence crosses a certain threshold, it indicates a positive result, meaning the virus’s genetic material is present in the sample. If the threshold isn’t reached, the test is considered negative.

It’s important to note that a positive PCR test result indicates the presence of viral genetic material, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual is actively infectious or symptomatic. It’s just an indicator of an ongoing or recent infection. Clinical symptoms, patient history, and other factors should be considered alongside the test result.

The SARS-CoV-2 PCR test has been widely used for diagnosing COVID-19 infections, contact tracing, monitoring the spread of the virus, and making informed public health decisions. It has played a pivotal role in managing the pandemic by enabling timely identification of infected individuals and helping to isolate and treat them, thereby reducing the transmission of the virus.

Test Result, Test Method

SARS-CoV-2 PCR Test-Introduction, Test Result, Unit, Normal Range, Test Method, Clinical Significance, and Keynotes
Table: SARS-CoV-2 PCR Test-Positive

Clinical Significance

The SARS-CoV-2 PCR test holds significant clinical importance in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It serves several critical purposes in the management and control of the disease:

  1. Diagnosis of Active Infection: The primary clinical use of the SARS-CoV-2 PCR test is to diagnose active COVID-19 infections. By detecting the genetic material of the virus in respiratory samples, the test confirms whether an individual is currently infected with the virus. This is particularly important for providing timely medical care and implementing isolation measures to prevent further spread.
  2. Isolation and Quarantine: A positive PCR test result prompts individuals to isolate themselves from others to prevent the potential transmission of the virus. This helps in containing the spread of the disease within communities and households. Similarly, those who have been in close contact with confirmed cases may be asked to quarantine and get tested to identify possible infections early.
  3. Treatment Decisions: The results of the PCR test can guide medical professionals in making treatment decisions for individuals with confirmed COVID-19. It helps in determining the appropriate level of care, especially for those with severe symptoms or underlying health conditions.
  4. Public Health Surveillance: PCR testing data is crucial for tracking the prevalence and spread of the virus within a population. Public health authorities use this data to monitor trends, identify hotspots, and make informed decisions about resource allocation and containment strategies.
  5. Contact Tracing: PCR testing is a fundamental tool for effective contact tracing. When a person tests positive, health authorities can identify and notify individuals who were in close contact with the infected person. These contacts can then be tested and monitored for any symptoms, helping to break chains of transmission.
  6. Travel and Border Control: Many countries require travelers to provide negative PCR test results before entry or upon arrival to control the introduction of new infections. This helps prevent the importation of cases from areas with higher infection rates.
  7. Epidemiological Studies: PCR testing data contributes to epidemiological research and studies that aim to understand the dynamics of the virus’s spread, risk factors, and the effectiveness of interventions like vaccination.
  8. Monitoring Disease Spread: The ability to detect and quantify viral RNA through PCR testing provides valuable information about the level of viral activity in different regions. This information is crucial for making informed decisions about reopening or tightening restrictions.
  9. Vaccine Efficacy Studies: PCR testing is used to assess the effectiveness of vaccines by comparing infection rates between vaccinated and unvaccinated populations. This data helps determine the real-world impact of vaccination campaigns.
  10. Public Health Response: PCR testing results guide public health responses, such as implementing lockdowns, targeted testing campaigns, and adjusting healthcare resources based on the volume of active cases.


Here are the key points to remember about the SARS-CoV-2 PCR test:

  1. Purpose: The SARS-CoV-2 PCR test is a molecular diagnostic test used to detect the genetic material (RNA) of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in respiratory samples from individuals suspected of having COVID-19.
  2. Sample Collection: Respiratory samples are collected using nasopharyngeal or nasal swabs, which are then processed in the laboratory.
  3. RNA Extraction: The collected samples undergo RNA extraction to isolate the genetic material of the virus.
  4. Reverse Transcription: The extracted RNA is converted into complementary DNA (cDNA) through a process called reverse transcription.
  5. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR): The cDNA is subjected to PCR, which involves repeated cycles of heating and cooling to amplify the viral genetic material using specific primers that target SARS-CoV-2 sequences.
  6. Fluorescent Probes: Fluorescent probes are used to detect the presence of amplified viral RNA. These probes emit fluorescence when they bind to the viral genetic material.
  7. Threshold Detection: The level of fluorescence is monitored during PCR cycles. A certain threshold of fluorescence needs to be reached for a test to be considered positive.
  8. Positive Result: A positive result indicates the presence of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material in the sample, suggesting an active or recent infection.
  9. Clinical Interpretation: A positive PCR result signifies viral presence but does not indicate the stage of infection or the person’s contagiousness. Other factors like symptoms and history are important for clinical interpretation.
  10. Isolation and Contact Tracing: Positive individuals should isolate themselves to prevent transmission. Contact tracing identifies and tests individuals who have been in close contact with confirmed cases.
  11. Diagnostic Accuracy: PCR tests are highly sensitive and specific when properly conducted, but false negatives can occur due to factors like sample quality and timing of testing in relation to infection.
  12. Public Health Importance: PCR testing is crucial for epidemiological surveillance, outbreak control, travel restrictions, and vaccine efficacy studies.
  13. Gold Standard: PCR testing is considered the gold standard for diagnosing COVID-19 due to its accuracy in detecting the virus’s genetic material.
  14. Laboratory Process: The entire process, from sample collection to result interpretation, is typically conducted in specialized laboratories equipped with the necessary instruments and expertise.
  15. Multiple Variants: PCR tests can be adapted to detect specific variants of the virus by targeting unique genetic sequences.
  16. Limitations: PCR tests require specialized equipment, trained personnel, and time for processing, which can lead to delays in obtaining results.
  17. Complementary Testing: PCR testing may be complemented by other diagnostic methods like antigen tests and serological tests to enhance diagnostic accuracy and assess different aspects of infection.
  18. Global Impact: The SARS-CoV-2 PCR test has been a cornerstone in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling timely identification and containment of infections.
  19. Evolution: As the pandemic progresses and technology advances, testing methods and protocols may evolve to improve accuracy, efficiency, and accessibility.
  20. Health Guidelines: Testing guidelines are determined by health authorities and may vary based on local conditions, resources, and epidemiological factors.

Further Readings

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
    • CDC’s “Testing for COVID-19” page: Provides comprehensive information on different types of COVID-19 tests, including PCR tests.
    • CDC Testing Overview
  2. World Health Organization (WHO):
    • WHO’s “Diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2”: Offers guidance on various aspects of COVID-19 testing, including PCR.
    • WHO Testing Guidance
  3. National Institutes of Health (NIH):
    • NIH’s “Understanding PCR”: Provides a detailed explanation of the PCR technique, its applications, and significance.
    • NIH PCR Explanation
  4. Clinical Laboratory Standards Institute (CLSI):
    • CLSI’s “Molecular Diagnostic Methods for Infectious Diseases”: A comprehensive guideline for molecular diagnostic testing methods, including PCR.
    • CLSI Molecular Diagnostic Methods
  5. Scientific Articles:
    • “Molecular testing for COVID-19 in the clinical laboratory: An Israeli experience” by Avi Peretz et al. (Journal of Clinical Virology, 2020): Discusses the implementation and challenges of COVID-19 molecular testing.
    • Read the Article
    • “Performance of VivaDiagTM COVID-19 IgM/IgG Rapid Test is inadequate for diagnosis of COVID-19 in acute patients referring to emergency room department” by Mohammad Sadegh Rezai et al. (Archives of Iranian Medicine, 2020): Evaluates the performance of a rapid test in comparison to PCR.
    • Read the Article
    • “Performance of Abbott ID Now COVID-19 rapid nucleic acid amplification test with nasopharyngeal swabs transported in viral transport media and dry nasal swabs in a large New York City cohort” by Mark J. Prince et al. (Journal of Clinical Microbiology, 2020): Assesses the performance of a rapid test compared to PCR.
    • Read the Article

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