EBioMedicine. 2020 Aug 24;59:102960. doi: 10.1016/j.ebiom.2020.102960. Online ahead of print.
BACKGROUND: Some COVID-19 cases test positive again for SARS-CoV-2 RNA following negative test results and discharge, raising questions about the meaning of virus detection. Better characterization of re-positive cases is urgently needed.
METHODS: Clinical data were obtained through Guangdong's COVID-19 surveillance network. Neutralization antibody titre was determined using microneutralization assays. Potential infectivity of clinical samples was evaluated by cell inoculation. SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected using three different RT-PCR kits and multiplex PCR with nanopore sequencing.
FINDINGS: Among 619 discharged COVID-19 cases, 87 re-tested as SARS-CoV-2 positive in circumstances of social isolation. All re-positive cases had mild or moderate symptoms at initial diagnosis and were younger on average (median, 28). Re-positive cases (n = 59) exhibited similar neutralization antibodies (NAbs) titre distributions to other COVID-19 cases (n = 218) tested here. No infectious strain could be obtained by culture and no full-length viral genomes could be sequenced from re-positive cases.
INTERPRETATION: Re-positive SARS-CoV-2 cases do not appear to be caused by active reinfection and were identified in ~14% of discharged cases. A robust NAb response and potential virus genome degradation were detected in almost all re-positive cases, suggesting a substantially lower transmission risk, especially through respiratory routes.