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ABSTRACTInformation on SARS-CoV-2 in representative community surveillance is limited, particularly cycle threshold (Ct) values (a proxy for viral load). Of 3,312,159 nose and throat swabs taken 26-April-2020 to 13-March-2021 in the UK’s national COVID-19 Infection Survey, 27,902(0.83%) were RT-PCR-positive, 10,317(37%), 11,012(40%) and 6,550(23%) for 3, 2 or 1 of the N, S and ORF1ab genes respectively, with median Ct=29.2 (∼215 copies/ml; IQR Ct=21.9-32.8, 14-56,400 copies/ml). Independent predictors of lower Cts (i.e. higher viral load) included self-reported symptoms and more genes detected, with at most small effects of sex, ethnicity and age. Single-gene positives almost invariably had Ct>30, but Cts varied widely in triple-gene positives, including without symptoms. Population-level Cts changed over time, with declining Ct preceding increasing SARS-CoV-2 positivity. Of 6,189 participants with IgG S-antibody tests post-first RT-PCR-positive, 4,808(78%) were ever antibody-positive; Cts were significantly higher in those remaining antibody-negative. Community SARS-CoV-2 Ct values could be a useful epidemiological early-warning indicator.IMPACT STATEMENTCt values from SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR tests vary widely and over calendar time. They have the potential to be used more broadly in public testing programmes as an “early-warning” system for shifts in infectious load and hence transmission.

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