Cell-based Culture Informs Infectivity and Safe De-Isolation Assessments in Patients with Coronavirus Disease 2019

Clin Infect Dis. 2021 Nov 2;73(9):e2952-e2959. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciaa1579.


Background: The detection of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) RNA by reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (PCR) does not necessarily indicate shedding of infective virions. There are limited data on the correlation between the isolation of SARS-CoV-2, which likely indicates infectivity, and PCR.

Methods: A total of 195 patients with Coronavirus disease 2019 were tested (outpatients, n = 178; inpatients, n = 12; and critically unwell patients admitted to the intensive care unit [ICU] patients, n = 5). SARS-CoV-2 PCR-positive samples were cultured in Vero C1008 cells and inspected daily for cytopathic effect (CPE). SARS-CoV-2-induced CPE was confirmed by PCR of culture supernatant. Where no CPE was observed, PCR was performed on day 4 to confirm absence of virus replication. The cycle thresholds (Cts) of the day 4 PCR (Ctculture) and the PCR of the original clinical sample (Ctsample) were compared, and positive cultures were defined where Ctsample - Ctculture was ≥3.

Results: Of 234 samples collected, 228 (97%) were from the upper respiratory tract. SARS-CoV-2 was isolated from 56 (24%), including in 28 of 181 (15%), 19 of 42 (45%), and 9 of 11 samples (82%) collected from outpatients, inpatients, and ICU patients, respectively. All 56 samples had Ctsample ≤32; CPE was observed in 46 (20%). The mean duration from symptom onset to culture positivity was 4.5 days (range, 0-18). SARS-CoV-2 was significantly more likely to be isolated from samples collected from inpatients (P < .001) and ICU patients (P < .0001) compared with outpatients, and in samples with lower Ctsample.

Conclusions: SARS-CoV-2 culture may be used as a surrogate marker for infectivity and inform de-isolation protocols.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; de-isolation; infection control; viral culture.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • COVID-19*
  • Chlorocebus aethiops
  • Critical Care
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Tests
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Vero Cells