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BackgroundHow SARS-CoV-2 infectivity varies with viral load is incompletely understood. Whether rapid point-of-care antigen lateral flow devices (LFDs) detect most potential transmission sources despite imperfect clinical sensitivity is unknown.MethodsWe combined SARS-CoV-2 testing and contact tracing data from England between 01-September-2020 and 28-February-2021. We used multivariable logistic regression to investigate relationships between PCR-confirmed infection in contacts of community-diagnosed cases and index case viral load, S gene target failure (proxy for B.1.1.7 infection), demographics, SARS-CoV-2 incidence, social deprivation, and contact event type. We used LFD performance to simulate the proportion of cases with a PCR-positive contact expected to be detected using one of four LFDs.Results231,498/2,474,066(9%) contacts of 1,064,004 index cases tested PCR-positive. PCR-positive results in contacts independently increased with higher case viral loads (lower Ct values) e.g., 11.7%(95%CI 11.5-12.0%) at Ct=15 and 4.5%(4.4-4.6%) at Ct=30. B.1.1.7 infection increased PCR-positive results by ~50%, (e.g. 1.55-fold, 95%CI 1.49-1.61, at Ct=20). PCR-positive results were most common in household contacts (at Ct=20.1, 8.7%[95%CI 8.6-8.9%]), followed by household visitors (7.1%[6.8-7.3%]), contacts at events/activities (5.2%[4.9-5.4%]), work/education (4.6%[4.4-4.8%]), and least common after outdoor contact (2.9%[2.3-3.8%]). Contacts of children were the least likely to test positive, particularly following contact outdoors or at work/education. The most and least sensitive LFDs would detect 89.5%(89.4-89.6%) and 83.0%(82.8-83.1%) of cases with PCR-positive contacts respectively.ConclusionsSARS-CoV-2 infectivity varies by case viral load, contact event type, and age. Those with high viral loads are the most infectious. B.1.1.7 increased transmission by ~50%. The best performing LFDs detect most infectious cases.

Original publication




Journal article


Clinical infectious diseases : an official publication of the Infectious Diseases Society of America

Publication Date



Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford, UK.