Background: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has become a public health emergency. The widely used reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) method has limitations for clinical diagnosis and treatment.
Methods: A total of 323 samples from 76 COVID-19-confirmed patients were analyzed by droplet digital PCR (ddPCR) and RT-PCR based 2 target genes (ORF1ab and N). Nasal swabs, throat swabs, sputum, blood, and urine were collected. Clinical and imaging data were obtained for clinical staging.
Results: In 95 samples that tested positive by both methods, the cycle threshold (Ct) of RT-PCR was highly correlated with the copy number of ddPCR (ORF1ab gene, R2 = 0.83; N gene, R2 = 0.87). Four (4/161) negative and 41 (41/67) single-gene positive samples tested by RT-PCR were positive according to ddPCR with viral loads ranging from 11.1 to 123.2 copies/test. The viral load of respiratory samples was then compared and the average viral load in sputum (17 429 ± 6920 copies/test) was found to be significantly higher than in throat swabs (2552 ± 1965 copies/test, P < .001) and nasal swabs (651 ± 501 copies/test, P < .001). Furthermore, the viral loads in the early and progressive stages were significantly higher than that in the recovery stage (46 800 ± 17 272 vs 1252 ± 1027, P < .001) analyzed by sputum samples.
Conclusions: Quantitative monitoring of viral load in lower respiratory tract samples helps to evaluate disease progression, especially in cases of low viral load.
Keywords: COVID-19; RT-PCR; SARS-CoV-2; ddPCR; viral load.
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