Mechanically Ventilated Patients Shed High-Titer Live Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) for Extended Periods From Both the Upper and Lower Respiratory Tract

Clin Infect Dis. 2022 Aug 24;75(1):e82-e88. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciac170.


Background: SARS-CoV-2 infection can lead to severe acute respiratory distress syndrome needing intensive care admission and may lead to death. As a virus that transmits by respiratory droplets and aerosols, determining the duration of viable virus shedding from the respiratory tract is critical for patient prognosis, and informs infection-control measures both within healthcare settings and the public domain.

Methods: We prospectively examined upper and lower airway respiratory secretions for both viral RNA and infectious virions in mechanically ventilated patients admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) of the University Hospital of Wales. Samples were taken from the oral cavity (saliva), oropharynx (subglottic aspirate), or lower respiratory tract (nondirected bronchoalveolar lavage [NBAL] or bronchoalveolar lavage [BAL]) and analyzed by both quantitative PCR (qPCR) and plaque assay.

Results: 117 samples were obtained from 25 patients. qPCR showed extremely high rates of positivity across all sample types; however, live virus was far more common in saliva (68%) than in BAL/NBAL (32%). Average titers of live virus were higher in subglottic aspirates (4.5 × 107) than in saliva (2.2 × 106) or BAL/NBAL (8.5 × 106) and reached >108 PFU/mL in some samples. The longest duration of shedding was 98 days, while most patients (14/25) shed live virus for ≥20 days.

Conclusions: ICU patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 can shed high titers of virus both in the upper and lower respiratory tract and tend to be prolonged shedders. This information is important for decision making around cohorting patients, de-escalation of personal protective equipment, and undertaking potential aerosol-generating procedures.

Keywords: SARS-CoV-2; intensive care unit; plaque assay; qPCR; viral load.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 Testing
  • COVID-19*
  • Humans
  • Respiration, Artificial
  • Respiratory System
  • SARS-CoV-2*