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Sensitive molecular diagnostics and correct test interpretation are crucial for accurate COVID-19 diagnosis and thereby essential for good clinical practice. Furthermore, they are a key factor in outbreak control where active case finding in combination with isolation and contact tracing are crucial.


With the objective to inform the public health and laboratory responses to the pandemic, we reviewed current published knowledge on the kinetics of SARS-CoV-2 infection as assessed by RNA molecular detection in a wide range of clinical samples.


We performed an extensive search on studies published between 1 December 2019 and 15 May 2020, reporting on molecular detection and/or isolation of SARS-CoV-2 in any human laboratory specimen.


We compiled a dataset of 264 studies including 32,515 COVID-19 cases, and additionally aggregated data points (n = 2,777) from sampling of 217 adults with known infection timeline. We summarised data on SARS-CoV-2 detection in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract, blood, oral fluid, tears, cerebrospinal fluid, peritoneal fluid, semen, vaginal fluid; where provided, we also summarised specific observations on SARS-CoV-2 detection in pregnancy, infancy, children, adolescents and immunocompromised individuals.


Optimal SARS-CoV-2 molecular testing relies on choosing the most appropriate sample type, collected with adequate sampling technique, and with the infection timeline in mind. We outlined knowledge gaps and directions for future well-documented systematic studies.


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