Presymptomatic Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 — Singapore, January 23–March 16, 2020

Wycliffe E. Wei, MPH; Zongbin Li, MBBS; Calvin J. Chiew, MPH; Sarah E. Yong, MMed; Matthias P. Toh, MMed; Vernon J. Lee, PhD

Disclosures

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2020;69(14):411-415. 

In This Article

Discussion

This investigation identified seven clusters of COVID-19 in Singapore in which presymptomatic transmission likely occurred. Among the 243 cases of COVID-19 reported in Singapore as of March 16, 157 were locally acquired; 10 of the 157 (6.4%) locally acquired cases are included in these clusters and were attributed to presymptomatic transmission. These findings are supported by other studies that suggest that presymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 can occur.[1–3] An examination of transmission events among cases in Chinese patients outside of Hubei province, China, suggested that 12.6% of transmissions could have occurred before symptom onset in the source patient.[3]

Presymptomatic transmission might occur through generation of respiratory droplets or possibly through indirect transmission. Speech and other vocal activities such as singing have been shown to generate air particles, with the rate of emission corresponding to voice loudness.[7] News outlets have reported that during a choir practice in Washington on March 10, presymptomatic transmission likely played a role in SARS-CoV-2 transmission to approximately 40 of 60 choir members.*

Environmental contamination with SARS-CoV-2 has been documented,[8] and the possibility of indirect transmission through fomites by presymptomatic persons is also a concern. Objects might be contaminated directly by droplets or through contact with an infected person's contaminated hands and transmitted through nonrigorous hygiene practices.

The possibility of presymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 increases the challenges of COVID-19 containment measures, which are predicated on early detection and isolation of symptomatic persons. The magnitude of this impact is dependent upon the extent and duration of transmissibility while a patient is presymptomatic, which, to date, have not been clearly established. In four clusters (A, B, F, and G), it was possible to determine that presymptomatic transmission exposure occurred 1–3 days before the source patient developed symptoms. Such transmission has also been observed in other respiratory viruses such as influenza. However, transmissibility by presymptomatic persons requires further study.

The findings in this report are subject to at least three limitations. First, although these cases were carefully investigated, the possibility exists that an unknown source might have initiated the clusters described. Given that there was not widespread community transmission of COVID-19 in Singapore during the period of evaluation and while strong surveillance systems were in place to detect cases, presymptomatic transmission was estimated to be more likely than the occurrence of unidentified sources. Further, contact tracing undertaken during this period was extensive and would likely have detected other symptomatic cases. Second, recall bias could affect the accuracy of symptom onset dates reported by cases, especially if symptoms were mild, resulting in uncertainty about the duration of the presymptomatic period. Finally, because of the nature of detection and surveillance activities that focus on testing symptomatic persons, underdetection of asymptomatic illness is expected. Recall bias and interviewer bias (i.e., the expectation that some symptoms were present, no matter how mild), could have contributed to this.

The evidence of presymptomatic transmission in Singapore, in combination with evidence from other studies[9,10] supports the likelihood that viral shedding can occur in the absence of symptoms and before symptom onset. This study identified seven clusters of cases in which presymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 likely occurred; 10 (6.4%) of such cases included in these clusters were among the 157 locally acquired cases reported in Singapore as of March 16. Containment measures should account for the possibility of presymptomatic transmission by including the period before symptom onset when conducting contact tracing. These findings also suggest that to control the pandemic it might not be enough for only persons with symptoms to limit their contact with others because persons without symptoms might transmit infection. Finally, these findings underscore the importance of social distancing in the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the avoidance of congregate settings.

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