Saliva viral load is a dynamic unifying correlate of COVID-19 severity and mortality

medRxiv. 2021 Jan 10;2021.01.04.21249236. doi: 10.1101/2021.01.04.21249236. Preprint


While several clinical and immunological parameters correlate with disease severity and mortality in SARS-CoV-2 infection, work remains in identifying unifying correlates of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) that can be used to guide clinical practice. Here, we examine saliva and nasopharyngeal (NP) viral load over time and correlate them with patient demographics, and cellular and immune profiling. We found that saliva viral load was significantly higher in those with COVID-19 risk factors; that it correlated with increasing levels of disease severity and showed a superior ability over nasopharyngeal viral load as a predictor of mortality over time (AUC=0.90). A comprehensive analysis of immune factors and cell subsets revealed strong predictors of high and low saliva viral load, which were associated with increased disease severity or better overall outcomes, respectively. Saliva viral load was positively associated with many known COVID-19 inflammatory markers such as IL-6, IL-18, IL-10, and CXCL10, as well as type 1 immune response cytokines. Higher saliva viral loads strongly correlated with the progressive depletion of platelets, lymphocytes, and effector T cell subsets including circulating follicular CD4 T cells (cTfh). Anti-spike (S) and anti-receptor binding domain (RBD) IgG levels were negatively correlated with saliva viral load showing a strong temporal association that could help distinguish severity and mortality in COVID-19. Finally, patients with fatal COVID-19 exhibited higher viral loads, which correlated with the depletion of cTfh cells, and lower production of anti-RBD and anti-S IgG levels. Together these results demonstrated that viral load, as measured by saliva but not nasopharyngeal, is a dynamic unifying correlate of disease presentation, severity, and mortality over time.

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