Viral load dynamics and disease severity in patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 in Zhejiang province, China, January-March 2020: retrospective cohort study

Zheng Shufa, Fan Jian, Yu Fei, Feng Baihuan, Lou Bin, Zou Qianda et al.

Published: 21 April 2020


Objective To evaluate viral loads at different stages of disease progression in patients infected with the 2019 severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) during the first four months of the epidemic in Zhejiang province, China.

Setting A designated hospital for patients with covid-19 in Zhejiang province, China.

Participants 96 consecutively admitted patients with laboratory confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection: 22 with mild disease and 74 with severe disease. Data were collected from 19 January 2020 to 20 March 2020.

Results 3497 respiratory, stool, serum, and urine samples were collected from patients after admission and evaluated for SARS-CoV-2 RNA viral load. Infection was confirmed in all patients by testing sputum and saliva samples. RNA was detected in the stool of 55 (59%) patients and in the serum of 39 (41%) patients. The urine sample from one patient was positive for SARS-CoV-2. The median duration of virus in stool (22 days, interquartile range 17-31 days) was significantly longer than in respiratory (18 days, 13-29 days; P=0.02) and serum samples (16 days, 11-21 days; P<0.001). The median duration of virus in the respiratory samples of patients with severe disease (21 days, 14-30 days) was significantly longer than in patients with mild disease (14 days, 10-21 days; P=0.04). In the mild group, the viral loads peaked in respiratory samples in the second week from disease onset, whereas viral load continued to be high during the third week in the severe group. Virus duration was longer in patients older than 60 years and in male patients.

Conclusion The duration of SARS-CoV-2 is significantly longer in stool samples than in respiratory and serum samples, highlighting the need to strengthen the management of stool samples in the prevention and control of the epidemic, and the virus persists longer with higher load and peaks later in the respiratory tissue of patients with severe disease.