SARS-CoV-2 activity is difficult to assess with conventional PCR assays.
Subgenomic RNA (sgRNA) may be a better proxy for infectivity.
Over 10% of COVID-19 patients were sgRNA positive beyond a 10-day period.
Long-duration sgRNA-positive patients were clinically unremarkable.
Vulnerable settings may require additional measures to minimize transmission.
This study aimed to evaluate the associations between COVID-19 severity and active viral load, and to characterize the dynamics of active SARS-CoV-2 clearance in a series of archival samples taken from patients in the first wave of COVID-19 infection in the South West of the UK.
Subgenomic RNA (sgRNA) and E-gene genomic sequences were measured in a retrospective collection of PCR-confirmed SARS-CoV-2-positive samples from 176 individuals, and related to disease severity. Viral clearance dynamics were then assessed in relation to symptom onset and last positive test.
Whilst E-gene sgRNAs declined before E-gene genomic sequences, some individuals retained sgRNA positivity for up to 68 days. 13% of sgRNA-positive cases still exhibited clinically relevant levels of virus after 10 days, with no clinical features previously associated with prolonged viral clearance times.
Our results suggest that potentially active virus can sometimes persist beyond a 10-day period, and could pose a potential risk of onward transmission. Where this would pose a serious public health threat, additional mitigation strategies may be necessary to reduce the risk of secondary cases in vulnerable settings.