Study: SARS-CoV-2 Transmission From People Without COVID-19 Symptoms

By: Michael A. Johansson, PhDTalia M. Quandelacy, PhD, MPHSarah Kada, PhD;

JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(1)

Published:  January 07 2021

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the etiology of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), is readily transmitted person to person. Optimal control of COVID-19 depends on directing resources and health messaging to mitigation efforts that are most likely to prevent transmission, but the relative importance of such measures has been disputed.

Key Points

Question  What proportion of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) spread is associated with transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) from persons with no symptoms?

Findings  In this decision analytical model assessing multiple scenarios for the infectious period and the proportion of transmission from individuals who never have COVID-19 symptoms, transmission from asymptomatic individuals was estimated to account for more than half of all transmission.

Meaning  The findings of this study suggest that the identification and isolation of persons with symptomatic COVID-19 alone will not control the ongoing spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Objective  To assess the proportion of SARS-CoV-2 transmissions in the community that likely occur from persons without symptoms.

Design, Setting, and Participants  This decision analytical model assessed the relative amount of transmission from presymptomatic, never symptomatic, and symptomatic individuals across a range of scenarios in which the proportion of transmission from people who never develop symptoms (ie, remain asymptomatic) and the infectious period were varied according to published best estimates. For all estimates, data from a meta-analysis was used to set the incubation period at a median of 5 days. The infectious period duration was maintained at 10 days, and peak infectiousness was varied between 3 and 7 days (−2 and +2 days relative to the median incubation period). The overall proportion of SARS-CoV-2 was varied between 0% and 70% to assess a wide range of possible proportions.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Level of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from presymptomatic, never symptomatic, and symptomatic individuals.

Results  The baseline assumptions for the model were that peak infectiousness occurred at the median of symptom onset and that 30% of individuals with infection never develop symptoms and are 75% as infectious as those who do develop symptoms. Combined, these baseline assumptions imply that persons with infection who never develop symptoms may account for approximately 24% of all transmission. In this base case, 59% of all transmission came from asymptomatic transmission, comprising 35% from presymptomatic individuals and 24% from individuals who never develop symptoms. Under a broad range of values for each of these assumptions, at least 50% of new SARS-CoV-2 infections was estimated to have originated from exposure to individuals with infection but without symptoms.

Conclusions and Relevance  In this decision analytical model of multiple scenarios of proportions of asymptomatic individuals with COVID-19 and infectious periods, transmission from asymptomatic individuals was estimated to account for more than half of all transmissions. In addition to identification and isolation of persons with symptomatic COVID-19, effective control of spread will require reducing the risk of transmission from people with infection who do not have symptoms. These findings suggest that measures such as wearing masks, hand hygiene, social distancing, and strategic testing of people who are not ill will be foundational to slowing the spread of COVID-19 until safe and effective vaccines are available and widely used.Introduction

As severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the novel coronavirus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), began to spread globally, it became apparent that the virus, unlike the closely related SARS-CoV in the 2003 outbreak, could not be contained by symptom-based screening alone. Asymptomatic and clinically mild infections were uncommon during the 2003 SARS-CoV outbreak, and there were no reported instances of transmission from persons before the onset of symptoms.1 SARS-CoV-2 spread faster than SARS-CoV, and accumulating evidence showed that SARS-CoV-2, unlike SARS-CoV, is transmitted from persons without symptoms. However, measures to reduce transmission from individuals who do not have COVID-19 symptoms have become controversial and politicized and have likely had negative effects on the economy and many societal activities. Optimal control of COVID-19 depends on directing resources and health messaging to mitigation efforts that are most likely to prevent transmission. The relative importance of mitigation measures that prevent transmission from persons without symptoms has been disputed. Determining the proportion of SARS-CoV-2 transmission that occurs from persons without symptoms is foundational to prioritizing control practices and policies.

Transmission by persons who are infected but do not have any symptoms can arise from 2 different infection states: presymptomatic individuals (who are infectious before developing symptoms) and individuals who never experience symptoms (asymptomatic infections, which we will refer to as never symptomatic). Early modeling studies of COVID-19 case data found that the generation interval of SARS-CoV-2 was shorter than the serial interval, indicating that the average time between 1 person being infected and that person infecting someone else was shorter than the average time between 1 person developing symptoms and the person they infected developing symptoms.25 This finding meant that the epidemic was growing faster than would be expected if transmission were limited to the period of illness during which individuals were symptomatic. By the time a second generation of individuals was developing symptoms, a third generation was already being infected. Epidemiological data from early in the pandemic also suggested the possibility of presymptomatic transmission,6,7 and laboratory studies confirmed that levels of viral RNA in respiratory secretions were already high at the time of symptom onset.810

Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 transmission also occurs because of individuals with infection who are never symptomatic (or who experience very mild or almost unrecognizable symptoms). The proportion of individuals with infection who never have apparent symptoms is difficult to quantify because it requires intensive prospective clinical sampling and symptom screening from a representative sample of individuals with and without infection. Nonetheless, evidence from household contact studies indicates that asymptomatic or very mild symptomatic infections occur,1114 and laboratory and epidemiological evidence suggests that individuals who never develop symptoms may be as likely as individuals with symptoms to transmit SARS-CoV-2 to others.9,15,16


The findings presented here complement an earlier assessment21 and reinforce the importance of asymptomatic transmission: across a range of plausible scenarios, at least 50% of transmission was estimated to have occurred from persons without symptoms. This overall proportion of transmission from presymptomatic and never symptomatic individuals is key to identifying mitigation measures that may be able to control SARS-CoV-2. For example, if the reproduction number (R) in a given setting is 2.0, then at least a 50% reduction in transmission is needed to drive the reproductive number below 1.0. Given that in some settings R is likely much greater than 2 and more than half of transmissions may come from individuals who are asymptomatic at the time of transmission, effective control must mitigate transmission risk from people without symptoms.Limitations

This study has limitations. First, we used a simplistic model to represent a complex phenomenon, ie, the average infectiousness of SARS-CoV-2 infections over time. We used this model deliberately to test assumptions about the timing of peak infectiousness and transmission among asymptomatic individuals so that we could vary only these 2 critical parameters and assess their relative effects. Therefore, these results lack quantitative precision, but they demonstrate the qualitative roles of these 2 components and show that across broad ranges of possible assumptions, the finding that asymptomatic transmission is a critical component of SARS-CoV-2 transmission dynamics remains constant.

As discussed here, the exact proportions of presymptomatic and never symptomatic transmission are not known. This also applies to the incubation period estimates, which are based on individual exposure and onset windows that are difficult to observe with precision and therefore include substantial uncertainty even when leveraging estimates across multiple studies. Moreover, they likely vary substantially in different populations. For example, older individuals are more likely than younger persons to experience symptoms,20 so in populations of older individuals, never asymptomatic transmission may be less important. However, specific age groups are rarely exclusively isolated from other age groups, so asymptomatic transmission risk is still important in those groups and even more so in younger age groups, in which transmission may be even more dominated by asymptomatic transmission.20

Real-world transmission dynamics are also not entirely dependent on the individual-level dynamics of infectiousness over time. Now that COVID-19 is widely recognized, individuals with COVID-19 symptoms are more likely to isolate themselves and further reduce the proportion of transmission from symptomatic individuals, shifting a greater proportion of transmission to those who do not have symptoms. In this sense, the estimates here represent the lower end of the proportion of asymptomatic transmission in the presence of interventions to reduce symptomatic transmission.Conclusions

Under a range of assumptions of presymptomatic transmission and transmission from individuals with infection who never develop symptoms, the model presented here estimated that more than half of transmission comes from asymptomatic individuals. In the absence of effective and widespread use of therapeutics or vaccines that can shorten or eliminate infectivity, successful control of SARS-CoV-2 cannot rely solely on identifying and isolating symptomatic cases; even if implemented effectively, this strategy would be insufficient. These findings suggest that effective control also requires reducing the risk of transmission from people with infection who do not have symptoms. Measures such as mask wearing and social distancing empower individuals to protect themselves and, if infected, to reduce risk to their communities.21 These measures can also be supplemented by strategic testing of people who are not ill, such as those who have exposures to known cases (eg, contact tracing) or are at high risk of exposing others (eg, congregate facility staff, those with frequent contact with the public). Multiple measures that effectively address transmission risk in the absence of symptoms are imperative to control SARS-CoV-2.