Background: Strategies to contain the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) depend on knowledge of the rate of human-to-human transmission, including subclinical infections. A lack of serologic tools has hindered targeted studies of transmission.
Methods: We studied 26 index patients with MERS-CoV infection and their 280 household contacts. The median time from the onset of symptoms in index patients to the latest blood sampling in contact patients was 17.5 days (range, 5 to 216; mean, 34.4). Probable cases of secondary transmission were identified on the basis of reactivity in two reverse-transcriptase-polymerase-chain-reaction (RT-PCR) assays with independent RNA extraction from throat swabs or reactivity on enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay against MERS-CoV S1 antigen, supported by reactivity on recombinant S-protein immunofluorescence and demonstration of neutralization of more than 50% of the infectious virus seed dose on plaque-reduction neutralization testing.
Results: Among the 280 household contacts of the 26 index patients, there were 12 probable cases of secondary transmission (4%; 95% confidence interval, 2 to 7). Of these cases, 7 were identified by means of RT-PCR, all in samples obtained within 14 days after the onset of symptoms in index patients, and 5 were identified by means of serologic analysis, all in samples obtained 13 days or more after symptom onset in index patients. Probable cases of secondary transmission occurred in 6 of 26 clusters (23%). Serologic results in contacts who were sampled 13 days or more after exposure were similar to overall study results for combined RT-PCR and serologic testing.
Conclusions: The rate of secondary transmission among household contacts of patients with MERS-CoV infection has been approximately 5%. Our data provide insight into the rate of subclinical transmission of MERS-CoV in the home.