Nucleic acid and antigen detection tests for leptospirosis

Bada Yang, Sophia G. de Vries, Ahmed Ahmed, Benjamin J. Visser, Ingeborg M. Nagel, Rene Spijker, Martin P. Grobusch, Rudy A. Hartskeerl, Marga G. A. Goris, Mariska M. G. Leeflang

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Early diagnosis of leptospirosis may contribute to the effectiveness of antimicrobial therapy and early outbreak recognition. Nucleic acid and antigen detection tests have the potential for early diagnosis of leptospirosis. With this systematic review, we assessed the sensitivity and specificity of nucleic acid and antigen detection tests.


To determine the diagnostic test accuracy of nucleic acid and antigen detection tests for the diagnosis of human symptomatic leptospirosis.

Search methods

We searched electronic databases including MEDLINE, Embase, the Cochrane Library, and regional databases from inception to 6 July 2018. We did not apply restrictions to language or time of publication.

Selection criteria

We included diagnostic cross-sectional studies and case-control studies of tests that made use of nucleic acid and antigen detection methods in people suspected of systemic leptospirosis. As reference standards, we considered the microscopic agglutination test alone (which detects antibodies against leptospirosis) or in a composite reference standard with culturing or other serological tests. Studies were excluded when the controls were healthy individuals or when there were insufficient data to calculate sensitivity and specificity.

Data collection and analysis

At least two review authors independently extracted data from each study. We used the revised Quality Assessment of Diagnostic Accuracy Studies tool (QUADAS-2) to assess risk of bias. We calculated study-specific values for sensitivity and specificity with 95% confidence intervals (CI) and pooled the results in a meta-analysis when appropriate. We used the bivariate model for index tests with one positivity threshold, and we used the hierarchical summary receiver operating characteristic model for index tests with multiple positivity thresholds. As possible sources of heterogeneity, we explored: timing of index test, disease prevalence, blood sample type, primers or target genes, and the real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) visualisation method. These were added as covariates to the meta-regression models.

Main results

We included 41 studies evaluating nine index tests (conventional PCR (in short: PCR), real-time PCR, nested PCR, PCR performed twice, loop-mediated isothermal amplification, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), dot-ELISA, immunochromatography-based lateral flow assay, and dipstick assay) with 5981 participants (1834 with and 4147 without leptospirosis). Methodological quality criteria were often not reported, and the risk of bias of the reference standard was generally considered high. The applicability of findings was limited by the frequent use of frozen samples. We conducted meta-analyses for the PCR and the real-time PCR on blood products.

The pooled sensitivity of the PCR was 70% (95% CI 37% to 90%) and the pooled specificity was 95% (95% CI 75% to 99%). When studies with a high risk of bias in the reference standard domain were excluded, the pooled sensitivity was 87% (95% CI 44% to 98%) and the pooled specificity was 97% (95% CI 60% to 100%). For the real-time PCR, we estimated a summary receiver operating characteristic curve. To illustrate, a point on the curve with 85% specificity had a sensitivity of 49% (95% CI 30% to 68%). Likewise, at 90% specificity, sensitivity was 40% (95% CI 24% to 59%) and at 95% specificity, sensitivity was 29% (95% CI 15% to 49%). The median specificity of real-time PCR on blood products was 92%. We did not formally compare the diagnostic test accuracy of PCR and real-time PCR, as direct comparison studies were lacking. Three of 15 studies analysing PCR on blood products reported the timing of sample collection in the studies included in the meta-analyses (range 1 to 7 days postonset of symptoms), and nine out of 16 studies analysing real-time PCR on blood products (range 1 to 19 days postonset of symptoms). In PCR studies, specificity was lower in settings with high leptospirosis prevalence. Other investigations of heterogeneity did not identify statistically significant associations. Two studies suggested that PCR and real-time PCR may be more sensitive on blood samples collected early in the disease stage. Results of other index tests were described narratively.

Authors' conclusions

The validity of review findings are limited and should be interpreted with caution. There is a substantial between-study variability in the accuracy of PCR and real-time PCR, as well as a substantial variability in the prevalence of leptospirosis. Consequently, the position of PCR and real-time PCR in the clinical pathway depends on regional considerations such as disease prevalence, factors that are likely to influence accuracy, and downstream consequences of test results. There is insufficient evidence to conclude which of the nucleic acid and antigen detection tests is the most accurate. There is preliminary evidence that PCR and real-time PCR are more sensitive on blood samples collected early in the disease stage, but this needs to be confirmed in future studies.

Original languageEnglish
Article number011871
JournalCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Issue number8
Number of pages204
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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