Estimating the cumulative incidence of SARS-CoV-2 with imperfect serological tests: Exploiting cutoff-free approaches.

Bouman, Judith A; Riou, Julien; Bonhoeffer, Sebastian; Regoes, Roland R (2021). Estimating the cumulative incidence of SARS-CoV-2 with imperfect serological tests: Exploiting cutoff-free approaches. PLoS computational biology, 17(2), e1008728. Public Library of Science 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1008728

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Large-scale serological testing in the population is essential to determine the true extent of the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Serological tests measure antibody responses against pathogens and use predefined cutoff levels that dichotomize the quantitative test measures into sero-positives and negatives and use this as a proxy for past infection. With the imperfect assays that are currently available to test for past SARS-CoV-2 infection, the fraction of seropositive individuals in serosurveys is a biased estimator of the cumulative incidence and is usually corrected to account for the sensitivity and specificity. Here we use an inference method-referred to as mixture-model approach-for the estimation of the cumulative incidence that does not require to define cutoffs by integrating the quantitative test measures directly into the statistical inference procedure. We confirm that the mixture model outperforms the methods based on cutoffs, leading to less bias and error in estimates of the cumulative incidence. We illustrate how the mixture model can be used to optimize the design of serosurveys with imperfect serological tests. We also provide guidance on the number of control and case sera that are required to quantify the test's ambiguity sufficiently to enable the reliable estimation of the cumulative incidence. Lastly, we show how this approach can be used to estimate the cumulative incidence of classes of infections with an unknown distribution of quantitative test measures. This is a very promising application of the mixture-model approach that could identify the elusive fraction of asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections. An R-package implementing the inference methods used in this paper is provided. Our study advocates using serological tests without cutoffs, especially if they are used to determine parameters characterizing populations rather than individuals. This approach circumvents some of the shortcomings of cutoff-based methods at exactly the low cumulative incidence levels and test accuracies that we are currently facing in SARS-CoV-2 serosurveys.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


04 Faculty of Medicine > Pre-clinic Human Medicine > Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine (ISPM)

UniBE Contributor:

Riou, Julien Yannis


600 Technology > 610 Medicine & health
300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology > 360 Social problems & social services




Public Library of Science




Andrea Flükiger-Flückiger

Date Deposited:

19 Mar 2021 17:49

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 15:48

Publisher DOI:


PubMed ID:





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