BackgroundThe identification of asymptomatic individuals with Plasmodium falciparum infection is difficult because they do not seek medical treatment and often have too few asexual parasites detectable using microscopy or rapid diagnostic tests (≤ 200 parasites per μl). Quantitative PCR (qPCR) may provide greater sensitivity and permits estimation of the initial template DNA concentration. This study examined the hypothesis that qPCR assays using templates with higher copy numbers may be more sensitive for P. falciparum than assays based on templates with lower copy numbers.MethodsTo test this hypothesis, ten qPCR assays for DNA sequences with template copy numbers from 1 to 160 were compared using parasite DNA standards (n = 2) and smear-positive filter paper blots from asymptomatic smear-positive subjects (n = 96).ResultsBased on the testing of P. falciparum parasite DNA standards and filter paper blots, cycle threshold values decreased as the concentrations of template DNA and template copy numbers increased (p < 0.001). Likewise, the analytical and clinical sensitivities of qPCR assays for P. falciparum DNA (based on DNA standards and filter paper blots, respectively) increased with template copy number. Despite the gains in clinical sensitivity from increased template copy numbers, qPCR assays failed to detect more than half of the filter paper blots with low parasite densities (≤ 200 asexual parasites per μl).ConclusionsThese results confirm the hypothesis that the sensitivity of qPCR for P. falciparum in the blood of individuals with asymptomatic infection increases with template copy number. However, because even the most sensitive qPCR assays (with template copy numbers from 32 to 160) detected fewer than 50% of infections with ≤ 200 asexual parasites per μl, the sensitivity of qPCR must be increased further to identify all smear-positive, asymptomatic individuals in order to interrupt transmission.