CT threshold values, a proxy for viral load in community sars-cov-2 cases, demonstrate wide variation across populations and over time
Background: Information on SARS-CoV-2 in representative community surveillance is limited, particularly cycle threshold (Ct) values (a proxy for viral load). Methods: We included all positive nose and throat swabs 26 April 2020 to 13 March 2021 from the UK’s national COVID-19 Infection Survey, tested by RT-PCR for the N, S, and ORF1ab genes. We investigated predictors of median Ct value using quantile regression. Results: Of 3,312,159 nose and throat swabs, 27,902 (0.83%) were RT-PCR-positive, 10,317 (37%), 11,012 (40%), and 6550 (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 6189 participants with IgG S-antibody tests post-first RT-PCR-positive, 4808 (78%) were ever antibody-positive; Cts were significantly higher in those remaining antibody negative. Conclusions: Marked variation in community SARS-CoV-2 Ct values suggests that they could be a useful epidemiological early-warning indicator.