Does a positive routine PCR test for Covid-19 virus mean the person is infectious?

Not necessarily! Although a positive routine PCR test for Covid-19 indicates the presence of the virus in a clinical specimen, it does not mean that the virus is still viable or transmissible, particularly as the patient may be recovering from Covid-19. Viral cultures are often needed to help answer this question. 1-5

In a study of 9 hospitalized patients with Covid-19, no viable Covid-19 virus could be found by culture in any specimen beyond 8 days following onset of symptoms despite a positive routine PCR for up to 13 days. Successful growth of the virus was dependent in part on viral load, with samples containing <106 copies/mL never yielding any viable virus.1  

In the same study, none of stools that were positive for Covid-19 virus by PCR were positive by culture.  The authors concluded that there is “little residual risk of infectivity” beyond day 10 of symptoms when sputum contains less than 100,000 viral RNA copies /ml.  Of note, the patients in this study were young- to middle-aged without significant underlying disease and had milder disease, so the results may not necessarily be generalizable to other patients with Covid-19. 1

The discrepancy between a positive PCR and negative culture has been seen with other respiratory pathogens,  such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza. In a study involving experimentally infected subjects with RSV, the average duration of viral shedding was 9.2 days by PCR compared to 7.2 days by viral culture.2 In another study involving patients with symptomatic influenza, virus could be detected for up to 7 days with PCR compared to 1-2 days by viral culture.3

Factors that may explain this discrepancy include suboptimal sample transport, low viral titers,  and the presence of neutralizing antibody in the clinical specimen.2,3

So, despite our incomplete knowledge, don’t assume that PCR positivity means the presence of live virus capable of transmitting Covid-19!

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References

  1. Wolfel R, Corman VM, Guggemos W, et al. Virological assessment of hospitalized patients with COVID-19. Nature 2020; April 1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2196-x
  2. Falsey AR, Formica MA, Treanor JJ, et al. Comparison of quantitative reverse transcriptase-PCR to viral culture for assessment of respiratory syncytial virus shedding. J Clin Microbiol 2003;41:4160-65. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC193781/pdf/0106.pdf
  3. Van Elden LJR, Nijhuis M, Schipper P, et al . Simultaneous detection of influenza viruses A and B using real-time quantitative PCR. J Clin Microbiol 2001;39:196-200. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC87701/
  4. Cangelosi GA, Meschke JS. Dead or alive:molecular assessment of microbial viability. App Environ Microbiol 2014;80:5884-91.
  5. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/publications-data/novel-coronavirus-sars-cov-2-discharge-criteria-confirmed-covid-19-cases

Disclosures: The listed questions and answers are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Catalyst, Harvard University, its affiliate academic healthcare centers, or its contributors. Although every effort has been made to provide accurate information, the author is far from being perfect. The reader is urged to verify the content of the material with other sources as deemed appropriate and exercise clinical judgment in the interpretation and application of the information provided herein. No responsibility for an adverse outcome or guarantees for a favorable clinical result is assumed by the author. Thank you!

 

Does a positive routine PCR test for Covid-19 virus mean the person is infectious?