Gold standard cholera diagnostics are tarnished by lytic bacteriophage and antibiotics

E. J. Nelson, J. A. Grembi, D. L. Chao, J. R. Andrews, L. Alexandrova, P. H. Rodriguez, V. V. Ramachandran, M. A. Sayeed, J. F. Wamala, A. K. Debes, D. A. Sack, A. J. Hryckowian, F. Haque, S. Khatun, M. Rahman, A. Chien, A. M. Spormann, G. K. Schoolnik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A fundamental, clinical, and scientific concern is how lytic bacteriophage, as well as antibiotics, impact diagnostic positivity. Cholera was chosen as a model disease to investigate this important question, because cholera outbreaks enable large enrollment, field methods are well established, and the predatory relationship between lytic bacteriophage and the etiologic agent Vibrio cholerae share commonalities across bacterial taxa. Patients with diarrheal disease were enrolled at two remote hospitals in Bangladesh. Diagnostic performance was assessed as a function of lytic bacteriophage detection and exposure to the first-line antibiotic azithromycin, detected in stool samples by mass spectrometry. Among diarrheal samples positive by nanoliter quantitative PCR (qPCR) for V. cholerae (n=78/849), the odds that a rapid diagnostic test (RDT) or qPCR was positive was reduced by 89% (odds ratio [OR], 0.108; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.002 to 0.872) and 87% (OR, 0.130; 95% CI, 0.022 to 0.649), respectively, when lytic bacteriophage were detected. The odds that an RDT or qPCR was positive was reduced by more than 99% (OR, 0.00; 95% CI, 0.00 to 0.28) and 89% (OR, 0.11; 95% CI, 0.03 to 0.44), respectively, when azithromycin was detected. Analysis of additional samples from South Sudan found similar phage effects on RDTs; antibiotics were not assayed. Cholera burden estimates may improve by accommodating for the negative effects of lytic bacteriophage and antibiotic exposure on diagnostic positivity. One accommodation is using bacteriophage detection as a proxy for pathogen detection. These findings have relevance for other diagnostic settings where bacterial pathogens are vulnerable to lytic bacteriophage predation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere00412-20
JournalJournal of clinical microbiology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2020


  • Bacteriophage
  • Cholera
  • Cholerae
  • ICP1
  • ICP2
  • ICP3
  • Outbreak
  • RDT
  • Vibrio
  • Vibriophage

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology (medical)


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