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SARS-CoV-2 breakthrough infections in vaccinated individuals and in those who had a prior infection have been observed globally, but the transmission potential of these infections is unknown. The RT-qPCR cycle threshold (Ct) value is inversely correlated with viral load and culturable virus. Here, we investigated differences in RT-qPCR Ct values across Qatar national cohorts of primary infections, reinfections, BNT162b2 (Pfizer-BioNTech) breakthrough infections, and mRNA-1273 (Moderna) breakthrough infections. Through matched-cohort analyses of the randomly diagnosed infections, the mean Ct value was higher in all cohorts of breakthrough infections compared to the cohort of primary infections in unvaccinated individuals. The Ct value was 1.3 (95% CI: 0.9-1.8) cycles higher for BNT162b2 breakthrough infections, 3.2 (95% CI: 1.8-4.5) cycles higher for mRNA-1273 breakthrough infections, and 4.0 (95% CI: 3.4-4.6) cycles higher for reinfections in unvaccinated individuals. Assuming a linear relationship between viral load and infectiousness, these differences imply that breakthrough infections are at least 50% less infectious than primary infections in unvaccinated individuals. Public health benefits of vaccination may have been underestimated, as COVID-19 vaccines not only protect against acquisition of infection, but also appear to protect against transmission of infection.

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