A test-negative design with additional population controls can be used to rapidly study causes of the SARS-COV-2 epidemic

Jan P. Vandenbroucke, Elizabeth B. Brickley, Christina M.J.E. Vandenbroucke-Grauls, Neil Pearce

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

40 Citations (Scopus)


Testing of symptomatic persons for infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 is occurring worldwide. We propose two types of case–control studies that can be carried out jointly in test settings for symptomatic persons. The first, the test-negative case–control design (TND) is the easiest to implement; it only requires collecting information about potential risk factors for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) from the tested symptomatic persons. The second, standard case–control studies with population controls, requires the collection of data on one or more population controls for each person who is tested in the test facilities, so that test-positives and test-negatives can each be compared with population controls. The TND will detect differences in risk factors between symptomatic persons who have COVID-19 (test-positives) and those who have other respiratory infections (test-negatives). However, risk factors with effect sizes of equal magnitude for both COVID-19 and other respiratory infections will not be identified by the TND. Therefore, we discuss how to add population controls to compare with the test-positives and the test-negatives, yielding two additional case–control studies. We describe two options for population control groups: one composed of accompanying persons to the test facilities, the other drawn from existing country-wide healthcare databases. We also describe other possibilities for population controls. Combining the TND with population controls yields a triangulation approach that distinguishes between exposures that are risk factors for both COVID-19 and other respiratory infections, and exposures that are risk factors for just COVID-19. This combined design can be applied to future epidemics, but also to study causes of nonepidemic disease.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)836-843
Number of pages8
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020


  • COVID-19
  • Case–control studies
  • Epidemiologic methods
  • Population controls
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Test-negative design

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