Duration of viral infectiousness and correlation with symptoms and diagnostic testing in non-hospitalized adults during acute SARS-CoV-2 infection: A longitudinal cohort study


Background: Guidelines for SARS-CoV-2 have relied on limited data on duration of viral infectiousness and correlation with COVID-19 symptoms and diagnostic testing. Methods: We enrolled ambulatory adults with acute SARS-CoV-2 infection and performed serial measurements of COVID-19 symptoms, nasal swab viral RNA, nucleocapsid (N) and spike (S) antigens, and replication-competent SARS-CoV-2 by culture. We determined average time from symptom onset to a first negative test result and estimated risk of infectiousness, as defined by a positive viral culture. Results: Among 95 adults, median [interquartile range] time from symptom onset to first negative test result was 9 [5] days, 13 [6] days, 11 [4] days, and >19 days for S antigen, N antigen, viral culture growth, and viral RNA by RT-PCR, respectively. Beyond two weeks, viral cultures and N antigen titers were rarely positive, while viral RNA remained detectable among half (26/51) of participants tested 21-30 days after symptom onset. Between 6-10 days from symptom onset, N antigen was strongly associated with viral culture positivity (relative risk=7.61, 95% CI: 3.01-19.2), whereas neither viral RNA nor symptoms were associated with culture positivity. During the 14 days following symptom onset, presence of N antigen (adjusted relative risk=7.66, 95% CI: 3.96-14.82), remained strongly associated with viral culture positivity, regardless of COVID-19 symptoms. Conclusions: Most adults have replication-competent SARS-CoV-2 for 10-14 after symptom onset, and N antigen testing is a strong predictor of viral infectiousness. Within two weeks from symptom onset, N antigen testing, rather than absence of symptoms or viral RNA, should be used to safely discontinue isolation.

Competing Interest Statement

The authors have declared no competing interest.

Funding Statement

This study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation

Author Declarations

I confirm all relevant ethical guidelines have been followed, and any necessary IRB and/or ethics committee approvals have been obtained.


The details of the IRB/oversight body that provided approval or exemption for the research described are given below:

Ethics committee/IRB of the University of Washington gave full ethical approval for this work. The institutional review board at the University of Washington (STUDY00009981) approved the study, and all participants provided written informed consent.

I confirm that all necessary patient/participant consent has been obtained and the appropriate institutional forms have been archived, and that any patient/participant/sample identifiers included were not known to anyone (e.g., hospital staff, patients or participants themselves) outside the research group so cannot be used to identify individuals.


I understand that all clinical trials and any other prospective interventional studies must be registered with an ICMJE-approved registry, such as ClinicalTrials.gov. I confirm that any such study reported in the manuscript has been registered and the trial registration ID is provided (note: if posting a prospective study registered retrospectively, please provide a statement in the trial ID field explaining why the study was not registered in advance).


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Data Availability

All data produced in the present work are contained in the manuscript

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