Background: Information on SARS-CoV-2 in representative community surveillance is limited, particularly cycle threshold (Ct) values (a proxy for viral load). Methods: We included all positive nose and throat swabs 26 April 2020 to 13 March 2021 from the UK’s national COVID-19 Infection Survey, tested by RT-PCR for the N, S, and ORF1ab genes. We investigated predictors of median Ct value using quantile regression. Results: Of 3,312,159 nose and throat swabs, 27,902 (0.83%) were RT-PCR-positive, 10,317 (37%), 11,012 (40%), and 6550 (23%) for 3, 2, or 1 of the N, S, and ORF1ab genes, respectively, with median Ct = 29.2 (~215 copies/ml; IQR Ct = 21.9–32.8, 14–56,400 copies/ml). Independent predictors of lower Cts (i.e. higher viral load) included self-reported symptoms and more genes detected, with at most small effects of sex, ethnicity, and age. Single-gene positives almost invariably had Ct > 30, but Cts varied widely in triple-gene positives, including without symptoms. Population-level Cts changed over time, with declining Ct preceding increasing SARS-CoV-2 positivity. Of 6189 participants with IgG S-antibody tests post-first RT-PCR-positive, 4808 (78%) were ever antibody-positive; Cts were significantly higher in those remaining antibody negative. Conclusions: Marked variation in community SARS-CoV-2 Ct values suggests that they could be a useful epidemiological early-warning indicator. Funding: Department of Health and Social Care, National Institutes of Health Research, Huo Family Foundation, Medical Research Council UK; Wellcome Trust.


Copyright Walker et al. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.

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Walker, S., Pritchard, E., House, T., Robotham, J., Birrell, P., Bell, I., Bell, J., Newton, J., Farrar, J., Diamond, I., Studley, R., Hay, J., Vihta, K., Peto, T., Stoesser, N., Matthews, P., Eyre, D. & Pouwels, K. 2021, 'Ct threshold values, a proxy for viral load in community SARS-CoV-2 cases, demonstrate wide variation across populations and over time', ELife, 10, article no: e64683. http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/elife.64683

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Last updated: 03 November 2022
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