Infection with the SARS-CoV-2 Delta Variant is Associated with Higher Infectious Virus Loads Compared to the Alpha Variant in both Unvaccinated and Vaccinated Individuals

medRxiv. 2021 Aug 20;2021.08.15.21262077. doi: 10.1101/2021.08.15.21262077. Preprint


Background: The emerging SARS-CoV-2 variant of concern (VOC) B. (Delta) quickly displaced the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) and is associated with increases in COVID-19 cases nationally. The Delta variant has been associated with greater transmissibility and higher viral RNA loads in both unvaccinated and fully vaccinated individuals. Data is lacking regarding the infectious virus load in Delta infected individuals and how that compares to individuals infected with other SARS-CoV-2 lineages.

Methods: Whole genome sequencing of 2,785 clinical isolates was used to characterize the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 lineages circulating in the National Capital Region between January and July 2021. Clinical chart reviews were performed for the Delta, Alpha, and B.1.2 (a control predominant lineage prior to both VOCs) variants to evaluate disease severity and outcome and Cycle threshold values (Cts) were compared. The presence of infectious virus was determined using Vero-TMPRSS2 cells and anti-SARS-CoV-2 IgG levels were determined from upper respiratory specimen. An analysis of infection in unvaccinated and fully vaccinated populations was performed.

Results: The Delta variant displaced the Alpha variant to constitute 88.2% of the circulating lineages in the National Capital Region by July, 2021. The Delta variant associated with increased breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated individuals that were mostly symptomatic when compared to the Alpha breakthrough infections, though it is important to note there was a significantly longer period of time between vaccination and infection with Delta infections. The recovery of infectious virus on cell culture was significantly higher with the Delta variant compared to Alpha in both vaccinated and unvaccinated groups. The impact of vaccination on reducing the recovery of infectious virus from clinical samples was only observed with Alpha variant infections but was strongly associated with low localized SARS-CoV-2 IgG for both variants. A comparison of Ct values showed a significant decrease in the Delta compared to Alpha with no significant differences between unvaccinated and vaccinated groups.

Conclusions: Our data indicate that the Delta variant is associated with increased infectious virus loads when compared to the Alpha variant and decreased upper respiratory antiviral IgG levels. Measures to reduce transmission in addition to increasing vaccinations rates have to be implemented to reduce Delta variant spread.

Funding: NIH/NIAID Center of Excellence in Influenza Research and Surveillance contract HHS N2772201400007C, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland department of health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contract 75D30121C11061.

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