Substantial undocumented infection facilitates the rapid dissemination of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV2).


Estimation of the prevalence and contagiousness of undocumented novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV2) infections is critical for understanding the overall prevalence and pandemic potential of this disease. Here we use observations of reported infection within China, in conjunction with mobility data, a networked dynamic metapopulation model and Bayesian inference, to infer critical epidemiological characteristics associated with SARS-CoV2, including the fraction of undocumented infections and their contagiousness. We estimate 86% of all infections were undocumented (95% CI: [82%-90%]) prior to 23 January 2020 travel restrictions. Per person, the transmission rate of undocumented infections was 55% of documented infections ([46%-62%]), yet, due to their greater numbers, undocumented infections were the infection source for 79% of documented cases. These findings explain the rapid geographic spread of SARS-CoV2 and indicate containment of this virus will be particularly challenging.

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Sen Pei

Associate Research Scientist
Columbia University