Persistent SARS-CoV-2 infection in immunocompromised patients facilitates rapid viral evolution: Retrospective cohort study and literature review

The COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium, David Hettle, Stephanie Hutchings, Peter Muir, Ed Moran, Matthew Bashton, Darren Smith, Andrew Nelson, Gregory R. Young, Clare McCann

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BACKGROUND: Most patients with SARS-CoV-2 are non-infectious within 2 weeks, though viral RNA may remain detectable for weeks. However there are reports of persistent SARS-CoV-2 infection, with viable virus and ongoing infectivity months after initial detection. Beyond individuals, viral evolution during persistent infections may be accelerated, driving emergence of mutations associated with viral variants of concern. These patients often do not meet inclusion criteria for clinical trials, meaning clinical and virologic characteristics, and optimal management strategies are poorly evidence-based.

METHODS: We analysed cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection from a regional testing laboratory in South-West England between March 2020 and December 2021, with at least two SARS-CoV-2 positive samples separated by ≥ 56 days were identified. Excluding those with confirmed or likely re-infection, we identified patients with persistent infection, characterised by an ongoing clinical syndrome consistent with COVID-19 alongside monophyletic viral lineage of SARS-CoV-2. We examined clinical and virologic characteristics, treatment, and outcome. We further performed a literature review investigating cases of persistent SARS-CoV-2 infection, reviewing patient characteristics and treatment.

RESULTS: We identified six patients with persistent SARS-CoV-2 infection. All were hypogammaglobulinaemic and had underlying haematological malignancy, with four having received B-cell depleting therapy. Evidence of viral evolution, including accrual of mutations associated with variants of concern, was demonstrated in five cases. Four patients ultimately cleared SARS-CoV-2. In two patients, clearance followed treatment with casirivimab/imdevimab. Both survived beyond thirty days following viral clearance, having experienced infections of 305- and 269-days duration respectively, after failed attempts at clearance with alternative therapies. We found 60 cases of confirmed persistent infection in the literature, with a further 31 probable cases. Of those, 80% of patients treated with monoclonal antibodies cleared SARS-CoV-2, and none died.

CONCLUSION: Haematological malignancy and patients receiving B-cell depleting therapies represent key groups at risk of persistent SARS-CoV-2 infection. Throughout persistent infection, SARS-CoV-2 can evolve rapidly, giving rise to significant mutations, including those implicated in variants of concern. Monoclonal antibodies appear to be a promising therapeutic option, potentially in combination with antivirals, crucial for individuals, and for public health.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100210
Number of pages10
JournalClinical Infection in Practice
Early online date16 Nov 2022
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2022


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