PREPRINT: Infectious viral load in unvaccinated and vaccinated patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 WT, Delta and Omicron


Abstract Background Viral load (VL) is one determinant of secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Emergence of variants of concerns (VOC) Alpha and Delta was ascribed, at least partly, to higher VL. Furthermore, with parts of the population vaccinated, knowledge on VL in vaccine breakthrough infections is crucial. As RNA VL is only a weak proxy for infectiousness, studies on infectious virus presence by cell culture isolation are of importance. Methods We assessed nasopharyngeal swabs of COVID-19 patients for quantitative infectious viral titres (IVT) by focus-forming assay and compared to overall virus isolation success and RNA genome copies. We assessed infectious viral titres during the first 5 symptomatic days in a total of 384 patients: unvaccinated individuals infected with pre-VOC SARS-CoV-2 (n= 118) or Delta (n= 127) and vaccine breakthrough infections with Delta (n= 121) or Omicron (n=18). Findings Correlation between RNA copy number and IVT was low for all groups. No correlation between IVTs and age or sex was seen. We observed higher RNA genome copies in pre-VOC SARS-CoV-2 compared to Delta, but significantly higher IVTs in Delta infected individuals. In vaccinated vs. unvaccinated Delta infected individuals, RNA genome copies were comparable but vaccinated individuals have significantly lower IVTs, and cleared virus faster. Vaccinated individuals with Omicron infection had comparable IVTs to Delta breakthrough infections. Interpretation Quantitative IVTs can give detailed insights into virus shedding kinetics. Vaccination was associated with lower infectious titres and faster clearance for Delta, showing that vaccination would also lower transmission risk. Omicron vaccine breakthrough infections did not show elevated IVTs compared to Delta, suggesting that other mechanisms than increase VL contribute to the high infectiousness of Omicron. Funding This work was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation 196644, 196383, NRP (National Research Program) 78 Covid-19 Grant 198412, the Fondation Ancrage Bienfaisance du Groupe Pictet and the Fondation Privée des Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève.

Writing about COVID-19

As well as building up a resource of information and analysis on COVID-19, we want to ensure that we pass on any tips about what can go wrong when writing about this subject: and how to get it right! If you have experience in writing about this area and feel you have advice that would help others, please contact us at:

We’d also like to hear from you at that address if you would like to regularly contribute links to the site. If you just want to suggest links on an occasional basis, please send them to: