The Natural History and Transmission Potential of Asymptomatic Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 Infection

Clin Infect Dis. 2020 Dec 17;71(10):2679-2687. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciaa711.


Background: Little is known about the natural history of asymptomatic severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection.

Methods: We conducted a prospective study at a quarantine center for coronavirus disease 2019 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We enrolled quarantined people with reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR)-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection, collecting clinical data, travel and contact history, and saliva at enrollment and daily nasopharyngeal/throat swabs (NTSs) for RT-PCR testing. We compared the natural history and transmission potential of asymptomatic and symptomatic individuals.

Results: Between 10 March and 4 April 2020, 14 000 quarantined people were tested for SARS-CoV-2; 49 were positive. Of these, 30 participated in the study: 13 (43%) never had symptoms and 17 (57%) were symptomatic. Seventeen (57%) participants imported cases. Compared with symptomatic individuals, asymptomatic people were less likely to have detectable SARS-CoV-2 in NTS collected at enrollment (8/13 [62%] vs 17/17 [100%]; P = .02). SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected in 20 of 27 (74%) available saliva samples (7 of 11 [64%] in the asymptomatic group and 13 of 16 [81%] in the symptomatic group; P = .56). Analysis of RT-PCR positivity probability showed that asymptomatic participants had faster viral clearance than symptomatic participants (P < .001 for difference over the first 19 days). This difference was most pronounced during the first week of follow-up. Two of the asymptomatic individuals appeared to transmit SARS-CoV-2 to 4 contacts.

Conclusions: Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection is common and can be detected by analysis of saliva or NTSs. The NTS viral loads fall faster in asymptomatic individuals, but these individuals appear able to transmit the virus to others.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; Vietnam; coronaviruses; pandemic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Humans
  • Prospective Studies
  • RNA, Viral
  • SARS-CoV-2*
  • Vietnam / epidemiology


  • RNA, Viral