Ct threshold values, a proxy for viral load in community SARS-CoV-2 cases, demonstrate wide variation across populations and over time
Walker S., Pritchard E., House T., Robotham J., Birrell P., Bell I., Bell J., Newton J., Farrar J., Diamond I., Studley R., Hay J., Vihta K-D., Peto T., Stoesser N., Matthews P., Eyre D., Pouwels K., the COVID-19 Infection Survey team None.
ABSTRACT Information on SARS-CoV-2 in representative community surveillance is limited, particularly cycle threshold (Ct) values (a proxy for viral load). Of 3,312,159 nose and throat swabs taken 26-April-2020 to 13-March-2021 in the UK’s national COVID-19 Infection Survey, 27,902(0.83%) were RT-PCR-positive, 10,317(37%), 11,012(40%) and 6,550(23%) for 3, 2 or 1 of the N, S and ORF1ab genes respectively, with median Ct=29.2 (∼215 copies/ml; IQR Ct=21.9-32.8, 14-56,400 copies/ml). Independent predictors of lower Cts (i.e. higher viral load) included self-reported symptoms and more genes detected, with at most small effects of sex, ethnicity and age. Single-gene positives almost invariably had Ct>30, but Cts varied widely in triple-gene positives, including without symptoms. Population-level Cts changed over time, with declining Ct preceding increasing SARS-CoV-2 positivity. Of 6,189 participants with IgG S-antibody tests post-first RT-PCR-positive, 4,808(78%) were ever antibody-positive; Cts were significantly higher in those remaining antibody-negative. Community SARS-CoV-2 Ct values could be a useful epidemiological early-warning indicator. IMPACT STATEMENT Ct values from SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR tests vary widely and over calendar time. They have the potential to be used more broadly in public testing programmes as an “early-warning” system for shifts in infectious load and hence transmission.