Predicting Infectious Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 From Diagnostic Samples

Clin Infect Dis. 2020 Dec 17;71(10):2663-2666. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciaa638.


Background: Reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) has become the primary method to diagnose viral diseases, including severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). RT-PCR detects RNA, not infectious virus; thus, its ability to determine duration of infectivity of patients is limited. Infectivity is a critical determinant in informing public health guidelines/interventions. Our goal was to determine the relationship between E gene SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR cycle threshold (Ct) values from respiratory samples, symptom onset to test (STT), and infectivity in cell culture.

Methods: In this retrospective cross-sectional study, we took SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR-confirmed positive samples and determined their ability to infect Vero cell lines.

Results: Ninety RT-PCR SARS-CoV-2-positive samples were incubated on Vero cells. Twenty-six samples (28.9%) demonstrated viral growth. Median tissue culture infectious dose/mL was 1780 (interquartile range, 282-8511). There was no growth in samples with a Ct > 24 or STT > 8 days. Multivariate logistic regression using positive viral culture as a binary predictor variable, STT, and Ct demonstrated an odds ratio (OR) for positive viral culture of 0.64 (95% confidence interval [CI], .49-.84; P < .001) for every 1-unit increase in Ct. Area under the receiver operating characteristic curve for Ct vs positive culture was OR, 0.91 (95% CI, .85-.97; P < .001), with 97% specificity obtained at a Ct of > 24.

Conclusions: SARS-CoV-2 Vero cell infectivity was only observed for RT-PCR Ct < 24 and STT < 8 days. Infectivity of patients with Ct > 24 and duration of symptoms > 8 days may be low. This information can inform public health policy and guide clinical, infection control, and occupational health decisions. Further studies of larger size are needed.

Keywords: COVID-19; RT-PCR; SARS-CoV-2; infectivity; public health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • COVID-19*
  • Chlorocebus aethiops
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • RNA, Viral
  • Retrospective Studies
  • SARS-CoV-2*
  • Vero Cells


  • RNA, Viral