Viral RNA level, serum antibody responses, and transmission risk in discharged COVID-19 patients with recurrent positive SARS-CoV-2 RNA test results: a population-based observational cohort study
Managing discharged COVID-19 (DC) patients with recurrent positive (RP) SARS-CoV-2 RNA test results is challenging. We aimed to comprehensively characterize the viral RNA level and serum antibody responses in RP-DC patients and evaluate their viral transmission risk. Methods A population-based observational cohort study was performed on 479 DC patients discharged from February 1 to May 5, 2020 in Shenzhen, China. We conducted RT-qPCR, antibody assays, neutralisation assays, virus isolation,
... e genome sequencing (WGS), and epidemiological investigation of close contacts. Findings Of 479 DC patients, the 93 (19%) RP individuals, including 36 with multiple RP results, were characterised by young age (median age: 34 years, 95% confidence interval [CI]: 29-38 years). The median discharge-to-RP length was 8 days (95% CI: 7-14 days; maximum: 90 days). After readmission, RP-DC patients exhibited mild (28%) or absent (72%) symptoms, with no disease progression. The viral RNA level in RP-DC patients ranged from 1.9-5.7 log10 copies/mL (median: 3.2, 95% CI: 3.1-3.5). At RP detection, the IgM, IgG, IgA, total antibody, and neutralising antibody (NAb) seropositivity rates in RP-DC patients were 38% (18/48), 98% (47/48), 63% (30/48), 100% (48/48), and 91% (39/43), respectively. Regarding antibody levels, there was no significant difference between RP-DC and non-RP-DC patients. The antibody level remained constant in RP-DC patients pre- and post-RP detection. Virus isolation of nine representative specimens returned negative results. WGS of six specimens yielded only genomic fragments. No clinical symptoms were exhibited by 96 close contacts of 23 RP-DC patients; their viral RNA (96/96) and antibody (20/20) test results were negative. After full recovery, 60% of patients (n=162, 78 no longer RP RP-DC and 84 non-RP-DC) had NAb titres of ≥1:32. Interpretation RP may occur in DC patients following intermittent and non-stable excretion of low viral RNA levels. RP-DC patients pose a low risk of transmitting SARS-CoV-2. An NAb titre of ≥1:32 may provide a reference indicator for evaluating humoral responses in COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials.