Background: The prevalence of true asymptomatic COVID-19 cases is critical to policy makers considering the effectiveness of mitigation measures against the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. We aimed to synthesize all available research on the asymptomatic rates and transmission rates where possible.
Methods: We searched PubMed, Embase, Cochrane COVID-19 trials, and Europe PMC (which covers pre-print platforms such as MedRxiv). We included primary studies reporting on asymptomatic prevalence where: (a) the sample frame includes at-risk population, and (b) there was sufficiently long follow up to identify pre-symptomatic cases. Meta-analysis used fixed effect and random effects models. We assessed risk of bias by combination of questions adapted from risk of bias tools for prevalence and diagnostic accuracy studies.
Results: We screened 2,454 articles and included 13 low risk-of-bias studies from seven countries that tested 21,708 at-risk people, of which 663 were positive and 111 were asymptomatic. Diagnosis in all studies was confirmed using a RT-PCR test. The proportion of asymptomatic cases ranged from 4% to 41%. Meta-analysis (fixed effect) found that the proportion of asymptomatic cases was 17% (95% CI: 14% – 20%) overall; higher in aged care 20% (14% – 27%), and lower in non-aged care 16% (13% – 20%). Five studies provided direct evidence of forward transmission of the infection by asymptomatic cases. Overall, there was a 42% lower relative risk of asymptomatic transmission compared to symptomatic transmission (combined Relative Risk: 0.58; 95% CI 0.335-0.994, p=0.047).
Discussion: Our estimates of the prevalence of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases and asymptomatic transmission rates are lower than many highly publicized studies, but still sufficient to warrant policy attention. Further robust epidemiological evidence is urgently needed, including in sub-populations such as children, to better understand the importance of asymptomatic cases for driving spread of the pandemic.