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High Rate of Asymptomatic Carriage Associated with Variant Strain Omicron

By Nigel Garrett, Asa Tapley, Jessica Andriesen, Ishen Seocharan, Leigh H Fisher, Lisa Bunts, Nicole Espy, Carole Wallis, April Kaur Randhawa, Nzeera Ketter, Margaret Yacovone, Ameena Goga, Linda-Gail Bekker, Glenda E Gray, Lawrence Corey

Posted 27 Dec 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.12.20.21268130

The early widespread dissemination of Omicron indicates the urgent need to better understand the transmission dynamics of this variant, including asymptomatic spread among immunocompetent and immunosuppressed populations. In early December 2021, the Ubuntu clinical trial, designed to evaluate efficacy of the mRNA-1273 vaccine (Moderna) among persons living with HIV (PLWH), began enrolling participants. Nasal swabs are routinely obtained at the initial vaccination visit, which requires participants to be clinically well to receive their initial jab. Of the initial 230 participants enrolled between December 2 and December 17, 2021, 71 (31%) were PCR positive for SARS-CoV-2: all of whom were subsequently confirmed by S gene dropout to be Omicron; 48% of the tested samples had cycle threshold (CT) values <25 and 18% less than 20, indicative of high titers of asymptomatic shedding. Asymptomatic carriage rates were similar in SARS-CoV-2 seropositive and seronegative persons (27% respectively). These data are in stark contrast to COVID-19 vaccine studies conducted pre-Omicron, where the SARS-CoV-2 PCR positivity rate at the first vaccination visit ranged from <1%-2.4%, including a cohort of over 1,200 PLWH largely enrolled in South Africa during the Beta outbreak. We also evaluated asymptomatic carriage in a sub study of the Sisonke vaccine trial conducted in South African health care workers, which indicated 2.6% asymptomatic carriage during the Beta and Delta outbreaks and subsequently rose to 16% in both PLWH and PHLWH during the Omicron period. These findings strongly suggest that Omicron has a much higher rate of asymptomatic carriage than other VOC and this high prevalence of asymptomatic infection is likely a major factor in the widespread, rapid dissemination of the variant globally, even among populations with high prior rates of SARS-COV-2 infection.

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