What’s the evidence that people without symptoms can transmit Covid-19 to those around them?

Rapid spread of Covid-19 virus has been attributed in large part to its ease of transmission from person to person even before symptoms develop, particularly since an estimated 18% to 75% of patients testing positive for Covid-19 have no symptoms. 1-4

Transmission before onset of symptoms (presymptomatic): Modeled estimates for the percentage of transmissions that occur from presymptomatic patients range from 37% to as high as 62% based on studies of patients in the cities of Tianjin and Guangzhou in China, as well as Singapore.5-7 Infectiousness appears to begin within 1-3 days prior to symptoms.8-10

Transmission when symptoms never develop (asymptomatic): Asymptomatic transmission was invoked in a familial cluster in Anyang, China where 5 patients developed Covid-19 after a 6th asymptomatic family member returned home from Wuhan, China. The asymptomatic patient never developed symptoms—such as fever or respiratory symptom— and had a normal chest CT, but briefly tested positive for Covid-19 by RT-PCR before testing negative later.11

It’s important to point out that up to ~75% of patients who are initially “asymptomatic” later develop symptoms. 12-14 So what we often call “asymptomatic” may actually be “presymptomatic.”

Transmission of Covid-19 before onset of symptoms is in distinct contrast to SARS, another coronavirus disease, which was transmitted only when a person was symptomatic and was easier to control. This unique property among coronaviruses may be explained by the high tropism of Covid-19 virus not only for the lungs (as in case of SARS virus) but also for the upper respiratory tract.15,16 As such, Covid-19 behaves more like influenza viruses whose upper respiratory tract binding is thought to promote their rapid transmission even before symptoms develop.17  No wonder, Covid-19 spread like wild fire!


Coauthor, Bruce Tiu, Harvard Medical Student, Boston, MA

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  1. Mizumoto K, Kagaya K, Zarebski A, et al. Estimating the asymptomatic proportion of coronavirus diseae 2019 (COID-19) cases on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, Yokohama, Japan, 2020. Euro Surveill.2020;25(10):pii=2000180 https://www.eurosurveillance.org/content/10.2807/1560-7917.ES.2020.25.10.2000180?ftag=MSF0951a18
  2. Kimaball, A, Hatfield KM, Arons M, et al. Asymptomatic and presymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections in residents of a long-term care skilled nursing facility—King County, Washington, March 2020. MMWR 2020;69:377-381. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6913e1.htm
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  5. He X, Lau E, Wu P, et al. Temporal dynamics in viral shedding and transmissibility of COVID-19. medRxiv. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.03.15.20036707v2
  6. Ferretti L, Wymant C, Kendall M, et al. Quantifying SARS-CoV-2 transmission suggests epidemic control with digital contact tracing [published online ahead of print, 2020 Mar 31]. Science. 2020; eabb6936. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/03/30/science.abb6936
  7. Ganyani T, Kremer C, Chen D, et al. Estimating the generation interval for COVID-19 based on symptom onset data. medRxiv. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.03.05.20031815v1
  8. Wei WE, Li ZB, Chiew CJ, et al. Presymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 — Singapore, January 23–March 16, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. ePub: 1 April 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6914e1.htm
  9. He X, Lau E, Wu P, et al. Temporal dynamics in viral shedding and transmissibility of COVID-19. medRxiv. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.03.15.20036707v2
  10. Rothe C, Schunk M, Sothmann P, et al. Transmission of 2019-nCoV Infection from an Asymptomatic Contact in Germany. N Engl J Med. 2020;382(10):970–971. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2001468
  11. Bai Y, Yao L, Wei T, et al. Presumed Asymptomatic Carrier Transmission of COVID-19 [published online ahead of print, 2020 Feb 21]. JAMA. 2020;e202565. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2762028
  12. Kimball A, Hatfield KM, Arons M, et al. Asymptomatic and Presymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Infections in Residents of a Long-Term Care Skilled Nursing Facility — King County, Washington, March 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69:377–381 https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6913e1.htm
  13. Chen, C. “What We Need to Understand About Asymptomatic Carriers if We’re Going to Beat Coronavirus”. ProPublica. 2020. https://www.propublica.org/article/what-we-need-to-understand-about-asymptomatic-carriers-if-were-going-to-beat-coronavirus
  14. WHO. Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). 2020. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/who-china-joint-mission-on-covid-19-final-report.pdf
  15. Woelfel R, Corman VM, Guggemos W, et al. Clinical presentation and virological assessment of hospitalized cases of coronavirus disease 2019 in a travel-associated transmission cluster. medRxiv. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.03.05.20030502v1
  16. Peiris JS, Chu CM, Cheng VC, et al. Clinical progression and viral load in a community outbreak of coronavirus-associated SARS pneumonia: a prospective study. Lancet. 2003;361(9371):1767–1772. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(03)13412-5/fulltext
  17. van Riel D, den Bakker MA, Leijten LM, et al. Seasonal and pandemic human influenza viruses attach better to human upper respiratory tract epithelium than avian influenza viruses. Am J Pathol. 2010;176(4):1614–1618. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/26/6/20-0357_article

Disclosures: The listed questions and answers are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Catalyst, Harvard University, its affiliate academic healthcare centers, or its contributors. Although every effort has been made to provide accurate information, the author is far from being perfect. The reader is urged to verify the content of the material with other sources as deemed appropriate and exercise clinical judgment in the interpretation and application of the information provided herein. No responsibility for an adverse outcome or guarantees for a favorable clinical result is assumed by the author. Thank you!

What’s the evidence that people without symptoms can transmit Covid-19 to those around them?

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