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.
Leveraging the national databases, effects of vaccination and of prior infection on SARS-CoV-2 infectiousness were investigated by comparing the RT-qPCR cycle threshold (Ct) values (inversely correlated with viral load and culturable virus) in matched cohorts of primary infections in unvaccinated individuals, reinfections in unvaccinated individuals, BNT162b2 (Pfizer-BioNTech) breakthrough infections, and mRNA-1273 (Moderna) breakthrough infections. Pairwise comparisons were conducted assuming linear and non-linear relationships.
Through 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. A sensitivity analysis assuming that infectiousness is non-linearly proportional to viral load ( ) yielded similar results.
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.