SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV viral load dynamics, duration of viral shedding and infectiousness: a living systematic review and meta-analysis

July, 2020


Background Viral load kinetics and the duration of viral shedding are important determinants for disease transmission. We aim i) to characterise viral load dynamics, duration of viral RNA, and viable virus shedding of SARS-CoV-2 in various body fluids and ii) to compare SARS-CoV-2 viral dynamics with SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV. Methods: Medline, EMBASE, Europe PMC, preprint servers and grey literature were searched to retrieve all articles reporting viral dynamics and duration of SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV shedding. We excluded case reports and case series with < 5 patients, or studies that did not report shedding duration from symptom onset. PROSPERO registration: CRD42020181914.

Findings: Seventy-nine studies on SARS-CoV-2, 8 on SARS-CoV-1, and 11 on MERS-CoV were included. Mean SARS-CoV-2 RNA shedding duration in upper respiratory tract, lower respiratory tract, stool and serum were 17.0, 14.6, 17.2 and 16.6 days, respectively. Maximum duration of SARS-CoV-2 RNA shedding reported in URT, LRT, stool and serum was 83, 59, 35 and 60 days, respectively. Pooled mean duration of SARS-CoV-2 RNA shedding was positively associated with age (p=0.002), but not gender (p = 0.277).

No study to date has detected live virus beyond day nine of illness despite persistently high viral loads. SARS-CoV-2 viral load in the upper respiratory tract appears to peak in the first week of illness, while SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV peak later. Conclusion: Although SARS-CoV-2 RNA shedding in respiratory and stool can be prolonged, duration of viable virus is relatively short-lived. Thus, detection of viral RNA cannot be used to infer infectiousness. High SARS-CoV-2 titres are detectable in the first week of illness with an early peak observed at symptom onset to day 5 of illness. This review underscores the importance of early case finding and isolation, as well as public education on the spectrum of illness. However, given potential delays in the isolation of patients, effective containment of SARS-CoV-2 may be challenging even with an early detection and isolation strategy.

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