Background: Point-of-care (POC) hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA nucleic acid test viral load assays are being used increasingly as an alternative to centralised, laboratory-based standard-of-care (SOC) viral load assays to reduce loss to follow-up. We aimed to evaluate the impact of using POC compared with SOC approaches on uptake of HCV RNA viral load testing and treatment, and turnaround times from testing to treatment along the HCV care cascade. Methods: We searched PubMed, Embase, and Web of Science for studies published in English between Jan 1, 2016, and April 13, 2022. We additionally searched for accepted conference abstracts (2016−20) not identified in the main search. The contacts directory of the WHO Global Hepatitis Programme was also used to solicit additional studies on use of POC RNA assays. We included studies if they evaluated use of POC HCV RNA viral load with or without a comparator laboratory-based SOC assay, and had data on uptake of viral load testing and treatment, and turnaround times between these steps in cascade. We excluded studies with a sample size of ten or fewer participants. The POC studies were categorised according to whether the POC assay was based onsite at the clinic, in a mobile unit, or in a laboratory. Studies using the POC assay or comparator SOC assays were further stratified according to four models of care: whether HCV testing and treatment initiation were performed in the same or different site, and on the same or a different visit. The comparator was centralised, laboratory-based HCV RNA SOC assays. For turnaround times, we calculated the weighted median of medians with 95% CIs. We analysed viral load testing and treatment uptake using random-effects meta-analysis. The quality of evidence was rated using the GRADE framework. This study is registered with PROSPERO, CRD42020218239. Findings: We included 45 studies with 64 within-study arms: 28 studies were in people who inject drugs, were homeless, or both; four were in people incarcerated in prison; nine were in the general or mixed (ie, includes high-risk groups) populations; and four were in people living with HIV. All were observational studies. The pooled median turnaround times between HCV antibody test and treatment initiation was shorter with onsite POC assays (19 days [95% CI 14–53], ten arms) than with either laboratory-based POC assays (64 days [64–64], one arm) or laboratory-based SOC assays (67 days [50–67], two arms). Treatment uptake was higher with onsite POC assays (77% [95% CI 72–83], 34 arms) or mobile POC assays (81% [60–97], five arms) than with SOC assays (53% [31–75], 12 arms); onsite and mobile POC assay vs SOC assay p=0·029). For POC and SOC arms, higher RNA viral load testing uptake was seen with the same-site models for testing and treatment than with different-site models (all within-category p≤0·0001). For onsite and mobile POC arms, there was higher treatment uptake for same-site than different-site models (within-category p<0·0001). Four studies had direct within-study POC versus SOC comparisons for RNA viral load testing uptake (pooled relative risk 1·11 [95% CI 0·89–1·38]), and there were ten studies on treatment uptake (1·32 [1·06–1·64]). Overall, the quality of evidence was rated as low. Interpretation: Compared with use of laboratory-based SOC HCV viral load testing, the use of POC assays was associated with reduced time from antibody test to treatment initiation and increased treatment uptake. The effect of POC viral load testing is greatest when positioned within a simplified care model in which testing and treatment are provided at the same site, and, where possible, on the same day. POC HCV RNA viral load testing is now recommended in WHO guidelines as an alternative strategy to laboratory-based viral load testing. Funding: Unitaid.
The Lancet Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Volume 8, March 2023,