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Three Quarters of People with SARS-CoV-2 Infection are Asymptomatic: Analysis of English Household Survey Data

Authors Petersen I, Phillips A

Received 13 August 2020

Accepted for publication 25 September 2020

Published 8 October 2020 Volume 2020:12 Pages 1039—1043


Checked for plagiarism Yes

Review by Single anonymous peer review

Peer reviewer comments 2

Editor who approved publication: Professor Henrik Toft Sørensen

Irene Petersen,1,2 Andrew Phillips3

1Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health, University College London, London, UK; 2Department of Clinical Epidemiology, Aarhus University Hospital, Aarhus, Denmark; 3Institute for Global Health, University College London, London, UK

Correspondence: Irene Petersen
Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health, University College London, Rowland Hill St., London NW3 2PF, UK
Tel +44 020 801 68032

Background: To reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2, it is important to identify those who are infectious. However, little is known about what proportion of infectious people are asymptomatic and potential “silent” transmitters. We evaluated the value of COVID-19 symptoms as a marker for SARS-CoV-2 infection from a representative English survey.
Methods: We used data from the Office for National Statistics Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Survey pilot study. We estimated sensitivity, specificity, the proportion of asymptomatic cases (1 – sensitivity), positive predictive value (PPV) and negative predictive value (NPV) of COVID-19 symptoms as a marker of infection using results of the SARS-CoV-2 test as the “gold standard”.
Results: In total, there were 36,061 individuals with a SARS-CoV-2 test between 26 April and 27 June 2020. Of these, 625 (1.7%) reported symptoms on the day of the test. There were 115 (0.32%) with a positive SARS-CoV-2 test result. Of the 115, there were 27 (23.5%) who were symptomatic and 88 (76.5%) who were asymptomatic on the day of the test. Focusing on those with specific symptoms (cough, and/or fever, and/or loss of taste/smell), there were 158 (0.43%) with such symptoms on the day of the test. Of the 115 with a positive SARS-CoV-2, there were 16 (13.9%) reporting symptoms. In contrast, 99 (86.1%) did not report specific symptoms on the day of the test. The PPV for all symptoms was 4.3% and for the specific symptoms 10.1%. The specificity and NPV of symptoms were above 98%.
Conclusion: COVID-19 symptoms are poor markers of SARS-CoV-2. Thus, 76.5% of this random sample who tested positive reported no symptoms, and 86.1% reported none of those specific to COVID-19. A more widespread testing programme is necessary to capture “silent” transmission and potentially prevent and reduce future outbreaks.

Keywords: COVID-19 symptoms, SARS-CoV-2, sensitivity, asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2

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