BACKGROUND: Levels of plasma SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid (N) antigen may be an important biomarker in patients with COVID-19 and enhance our understanding of the pathogenesis of COVID-19.
OBJECTIVE: To evaluate whether levels of plasma antigen can predict short-term clinical outcomes and identify clinical and viral factors associated with plasma antigen levels in hospitalized patients with SARS-CoV-2.
DESIGN: Cross-sectional study of baseline plasma antigen level from 2540 participants enrolled in the TICO (Therapeutics for Inpatients With COVID-19) platform trial from August 2020 to November 2021, with additional data on day 5 outcome and time to discharge.
SETTING: 114 centers in 10 countries.
PARTICIPANTS: Adults hospitalized for acute SARS-CoV-2 infection with 12 days or less of symptoms.
MEASUREMENTS: Baseline plasma viral N antigen level was measured at a central laboratory. Delta variant status was determined from baseline nasal swabs using reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction. Associations between baseline patient characteristics and viral factors and baseline plasma antigen levels were assessed using both unadjusted and multivariable modeling. Association between elevated baseline antigen level of 1000 ng/L or greater and outcomes, including worsening of ordinal pulmonary scale at day 5 and time to hospital discharge, were evaluated using logistic regression and Fine-Gray regression models, respectively.
RESULTS: Plasma antigen was below the level of quantification in 5% of participants at enrollment, and 1000 ng/L or greater in 57%. Baseline pulmonary severity of illness was strongly associated with plasma antigen level, with mean plasma antigen level 3.10-fold higher among those requiring noninvasive ventilation or high-flow nasal cannula compared with room air (95% CI, 2.22 to 4.34). Plasma antigen level was higher in those who lacked antispike antibodies (6.42 fold; CI, 5.37 to 7.66) and in those with the Delta variant (1.73 fold; CI, 1.41 to 2.13). Additional factors associated with higher baseline antigen level included male sex, shorter time since hospital admission, decreased days of remdesivir, and renal impairment. In contrast, race, ethnicity, body mass index, and immunocompromising conditions were not associated with plasma antigen levels. Plasma antigen level of 1000 ng/L or greater was associated with a markedly higher odds of worsened pulmonary status at day 5 (odds ratio, 5.06 [CI, 3.41 to 7.50]) and longer time to hospital discharge (median, 7 vs. 4 days; subhazard ratio, 0.51 [CI, 0.45 to 0.57]), with subhazard ratios similar across all levels of baseline pulmonary severity.
LIMITATIONS: Plasma samples were drawn at enrollment, not hospital presentation. No point-of-care test to measure plasma antigen is currently available.
CONCLUSION: Elevated plasma antigen is highly associated with both severity of pulmonary illness and clinically important patient outcomes. Multiple clinical and viral factors are associated with plasma antigen level at presentation. These data support a potential role of ongoing viral replication in the pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2 in hospitalized patients.
PRIMARY FUNDING SOURCE: U.S. government Operation Warp Speed and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.