Annals of Clinical Microbiology, The official Journal of the Korean Society of Clinical Microbiology


Weeks in Review


Weeks to Publication
Indexed in KCI, KoreaMed, Synapse, DOAJ
Open Access, Peer Reviewed
pISSN 2288-0585 eISSN 2288-6850

Causes and Clinical Relevance of Inconclusive SARS-CoV-2 Real-Time Reverse Transcription-PCR Test Results

Original article

Annals of Clinical Microbiology (Ann Clin Microbiol) 2020 December, Volume 23, Issue 4, pages 251-259.

Causes and Clinical Relevance of Inconclusive SARS-CoV-2 Real-Time Reverse Transcription-PCR Test Results

Aram Kim, Heerah Lee, Kyu Wha Hur, Heungsup Sung, Mi-Na Kim

Department of Laboratory Medicine, Asan Medical Center, University of Ulsan College of Medicine, Seoul, Korea


Background: Inconclusive SARS-CoV-2 real-time reverse transcription-PCR (rRT-PCR) test results, which are positive for one or more target genes but not all, are problematic in clinical laboratories. In this study, we aimed to investigate the cause and clinical relevance of such inconclusive results.

Methods: rRT-PCR was performed using the Allplex 2019-nCoV assay kit (Seegene Inc., Korea) targeting the following three genes: E, RdRp, and N. For all inconclusive test results reported from March to June 2020, the frequency per kit, lot number, specimen type, cycle threshold (Ct) and peak values of the amplification curves, positive target genes, and results of repeated or consecutive tests were analyzed.

Results: A total of 43,268 tests were conducted, of which 93 (0.21%) were inconclusive—49 from 11 coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) patients and 44 from non-COVID-19 patients. In COVID-19 patients, the results were inconclusive 11.9 ± 4.7 days after diagnosis and were negative 8.8 ± 5.5 days after the inconclusive results were reported. However, in nonCOVID-19 patients, they were all negative upon retest and 81.8% of them were identified to have yielded in 2 out of 8 lots. The most frequently positive target genes were N (55.4%) in COVID-19 and RdRp (61.2%) in non-COVID-19 patients, respectively. No difference was observed in the Ct or peak values of the amplification curves for inconclusive samples between COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 cases.

Conclusion: Inconclusive test results should be reported neither positive nor negative. Such results can be reported as inconclusive without retesting in COVID-19 patients; however, they should certainly be confirmed by a retest in non-COVID-19 patients or newly diagnosed cases.


Coronavirus disease, Inconclusive results, Polymerase chain reaction, Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2