From the paper’s April 1, 2020 abstract. Note the researchers looked at nine patients in total.
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an acute respiratory tract infection that emerged in late 20191,2. Initial outbreaks in China involved 13.8% cases with severe, and 6.1% with critical courses3. This severe presentation corresponds to the usage of a virus receptor that is expressed predominantly in the lung2,4. By causing an early onset of severe symptoms, this same receptor tropism is thought to have determined pathogenicity, but also aided the control, of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 20035. However, there are reports of COVID-19 cases with mild upper respiratory tract symptoms, suggesting the potential for pre- or oligosymptomatic transmission6–8.
There is an urgent need for information on body site-specific virus replication, immunity, and infectivity. Here we provide a detailed virological analysis of nine cases, providing proof of active virus replication in upper respiratory tract tissues. Pharyngeal virus shedding was very high during the first week of symptoms (peak at 7.11 × 108 RNA copies per throat swab, day 4). Infectious virus was readily isolated from throat- and lung-derived samples, but not from stool samples, in spite of high virus RNA concentration. Blood and urine never yielded virus. Active replication in the throat was confirmed by viral replicative RNA intermediates in throat samples. Sequence-distinct virus populations were consistently detected in throat and lung samples from the same patient, proving independent replication.
Shedding of viral RNA from sputum outlasted the end of symptoms. Seroconversion occurred after 7 days in 50% of patients (14 days in all), but was not followed by a rapid decline in viral load. COVID-19 can present as a mild upper respiratory tract illness. Active virus replication in the upper respiratory tract puts the prospects of COVID-19 containment in perspective.
Wölfel, R., Corman, V.M., Guggemos, W. et al. Virological assessment of hospitalized patients with COVID-2019. Nature (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2196-x