UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Towards reduction in bias in epidemic curves due to outcome misclassification through Bayesian analysis of time-series of laboratory test results: case study of COVID-19 in Alberta, Canada and Philadelphia, USA Burstyn, Igor; Goldstein, Neal D; Gustafson, Paul


Background: Despite widespread use, the accuracy of the diagnostic test for SARS-CoV-2 infection is poorly understood. The aim of our work was to better quantify misclassification errors in identification of true cases of COVID-19 and to study the impact of these errors in epidemic curves using publicly available surveillance data from Alberta, Canada and Philadelphia, USA. Methods: We examined time-series data of laboratory tests for SARS-CoV-2 viral infection, the causal agent for COVID-19, to try to explore, using a Bayesian approach, the sensitivity and specificity of the diagnostic test. Results: Our analysis revealed that the data were compatible with near-perfect specificity, but it was challenging to gain information about sensitivity. We applied these insights to uncertainty/bias analysis of epidemic curves under the assumptions of both improving and degrading sensitivity. If the sensitivity improved from 60 to 95%, the adjusted epidemic curves likely falls within the 95% confidence intervals of the observed counts. However, bias in the shape and peak of the epidemic curves can be pronounced, if sensitivity either degrades or remains poor in the 60–70% range. In the extreme scenario, hundreds of undiagnosed cases, even among the tested, are possible, potentially leading to further unchecked contagion should these cases not self-isolate. Conclusion: The best way to better understand bias in the epidemic curves of COVID-19 due to errors in testing is to empirically evaluate misclassification of diagnosis in clinical settings and apply this knowledge to adjustment of epidemic curves.

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