Bacterial and Host Determinants of Cough Aerosol Culture Positivity in Patients With Drug-Resistant Versus Drug-Susceptible Tuberculosis

Nat Med. 2020 Jun 29. doi: 10.1038/s41591-020-0940-2. Online ahead of print.


A burgeoning epidemic of drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB) threatens to derail global control efforts. Although the mechanisms remain poorly clarified, drug-resistant strains are widely believed to be less infectious than drug-susceptible strains. Consequently, we hypothesized that lower proportions of patients with drug-resistant TB would have culturable Mycobacterium tuberculosis from respirable, cough-generated aerosols compared to patients with drug-susceptible TB, and that multiple factors, including mycobacterial genomic variation, would predict culturable cough aerosol production. We enumerated the colony forming units in aerosols (≤10 µm) from 452 patients with TB (227 with drug resistance), compared clinical characteristics, and performed mycobacterial whole-genome sequencing, dormancy phenotyping and drug-susceptibility analyses on M. tuberculosis from sputum. After considering treatment duration, we found that almost half of the patients with drug-resistant TB were cough aerosol culture-positive. Surprisingly, neither mycobacterial genomic variants, lineage, nor dormancy status predicted cough aerosol culture positivity. However, mycobacterial sputum bacillary load and clinical characteristics, including a lower symptom score and stronger cough, were strongly predictive, thereby supporting targeted transmission-limiting interventions. Effective treatment largely abrogated cough aerosol culture positivity; however, this was not always rapid. These data question current paradigms, inform public health strategies and suggest the need to redirect TB transmission-associated research efforts toward host-pathogen interactions.