Children's role in the COVID-19 pandemic: a systematic review of early surveillance data on susceptibility, severity, and transmissibility.


SARS-CoV-2 infections have been reported in all age groups including infants, children, and adolescents. However, the role of children in the COVID-19 pandemic is still uncertain. This systematic review of early studies synthesises evidence on the susceptibility of children to SARS-CoV-2 infection, the severity and clinical outcomes in children with SARS-CoV-2 infection, and the transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 by children in the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. A systematic literature review was conducted in PubMed. Reviewers extracted data from relevant, peer-reviewed studies published up to July 4th 2020 during the first wave of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak using a standardised form and assessed quality using the NIH Quality Assessment Tool for Observational Cohort and Cross-Sectional Studies. For studies included in the meta-analysis, we used a random effects model to calculate pooled estimates of the proportion of children considered asymptomatic or in a severe or critical state. We identified 2775 potential studies of which 128 studies met our inclusion criteria; data were extracted from 99, which were then quality assessed. Finally, 29 studies were considered for the meta-analysis that included information of symptoms and/or severity, these were further assessed based on patient recruitment. Our pooled estimate of the proportion of test positive children who were asymptomatic was 21.1% (95% CI: 14.0-28.1%), based on 13 included studies, and the proportion of children with severe or critical symptoms was 3.8% (95% CI: 1.5-6.0%), based on 14 included studies. We did not identify any studies designed to assess transmissibility in children and found that susceptibility to infection in children was highly variable across studies. Children's susceptibility to infection and onward transmissibility relative to adults is still unclear and varied widely between studies. However, it is evident that most children experience clinically mild disease or remain asymptomatically infected. More comprehensive contact-tracing studies combined with serosurveys are needed to quantify children's transmissibility relative to adults. With children back in schools, testing regimes and study protocols that will allow us to better understand the role of children in this pandemic are critical.

MIDAS Network Members

Steven Riley

Professor of Infectious Disease Dynamics
Imperial College London

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