Epidemiological impact of a large number of false negative SARS-CoV-2 test results in South West England during September and October 2021

L. Hounsome*, D. Herr, R. Bryant, R. Smith, L. Loman, J. Harris, U. Youhan, E. Dzene, P. Hadjipantelis, H. Long, T. Laurence, S. Riley, F. Cumming

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


During September and October 2021, a substantial number of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests in England processed at a single laboratory were incorrectly reported as negative. We estimate the number of false negative test results issued and investigate the epidemiological impact of this incident. We estimate the number of COVID-19 cases that would have been reported had the sensitivity of the laboratory test procedure not dropped for the period 2 September to 12 October. In addition, by making comparisons between the most affected local areas and comparator populations, we estimate the number of additional infections, cases, hospitalisations and deaths that could have occurred as a result of increased transmission due to false negative test results.We estimate that around 39,000 tests may have been false negatives during this period and, as a direct result of this incident, the most affected areas in the South-West of England could have experienced between 6000 and 34,000 additional reportable cases, with a central estimate of around 24,000 additional reportable cases. Using modelled relationships between key variables, we estimate that this central estimate could have translated to approximately 55,000 additional infections.Each false negative likely led to around 1.5 additional infections. The incident is likely to have had a measurable impact on cases and infections in the affected areas in the South-West of England. Impact statement: These results indicate the significant negative impact of incorrect testing on COVID outcomes; and make a substantial contribution to understanding the impact of testing systems and the need to ensure high accuracy in testing and reporting of results.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100739
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2024

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  • Causal impact analysis
  • Covid
  • Epidemiology
  • False negative
  • Testing


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