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Background: Sustained molecular detection of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) RNA in the upper respiratory tract (URT) in mild to moderate coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is common. We sought to identify host and immune determinants of prolonged SARS-CoV-2 RNA detection.
Methods: Ninety-five symptomatic outpatients self-collected midturbinate nasal, oropharyngeal (OP), and gingival crevicular fluid (oral fluid) samples at home and in a research clinic a median of 6 times over 1-3 months. Samples were tested for viral RNA, virus culture, and SARS-CoV-2 and other human coronavirus antibodies, and associations were estimated using Cox proportional hazards models.
Results: Viral RNA clearance, as measured by SARS-CoV-2 reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), in 507 URT samples occurred a median (interquartile range) 33.5 (17-63.5) days post-symptom onset. Sixteen nasal-OP samples collected 2-11 days post-symptom onset were virus culture positive out of 183 RT-PCR-positive samples tested. All participants but 1 with positive virus culture were negative for concomitant oral fluid anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. The mean time to first antibody detection in oral fluid was 8-13 days post-symptom onset. A longer time to first detection of oral fluid anti-SARS-CoV-2 S antibodies (adjusted hazard ratio [aHR], 0.96; 95% CI, 0.92-0.99; P = .020) and body mass index (BMI) ≥25 kg/m2 (aHR, 0.37; 95% CI, 0.18-0.78; P = .009) were independently associated with a longer time to SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA clearance. Fever as 1 of first 3 COVID-19 symptoms correlated with shorter time to viral RNA clearance (aHR, 2.06; 95% CI, 1.02-4.18; P = .044).
Conclusions: We demonstrate that delayed rise of oral fluid SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies, elevated BMI, and absence of early fever are independently associated with delayed URT viral RNA clearance.
Keywords: COVID-19; RT-PCR; SARS-CoV-2; antibody; viral RNA.