CT and clinical assessment in asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic patients with early SARS-CoV-2 in outbreak settings

Eur Radiol. 2021 May;31(5):3165-3176. doi: 10.1007/s00330-020-07401-8. Epub 2020 Nov 4.


Objectives: The early infection dynamics of patients with SARS-CoV-2 are not well understood. We aimed to investigate and characterize associations between clinical, laboratory, and imaging features of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic patients with SARS-CoV-2.

Methods: Seventy-four patients with RT-PCR-proven SARS-CoV-2 infection were asymptomatic at presentation. All were retrospectively identified from 825 patients with chest CT scans and positive RT-PCR following exposure or travel risks in outbreak settings in Japan and China. CTs were obtained for every patient within a day of admission and were reviewed for infiltrate subtypes and percent with assistance from a deep learning tool. Correlations of clinical, laboratory, and imaging features were analyzed and comparisons were performed using univariate and multivariate logistic regression.

Results: Forty-eight of 74 (65%) initially asymptomatic patients had CT infiltrates that pre-dated symptom onset by 3.8 days. The most common CT infiltrates were ground glass opacities (45/48; 94%) and consolidation (22/48; 46%). Patient body temperature (p < 0.01), CRP (p < 0.01), and KL-6 (p = 0.02) were associated with the presence of CT infiltrates. Infiltrate volume (p = 0.01), percent lung involvement (p = 0.01), and consolidation (p = 0.043) were associated with subsequent development of symptoms.

Conclusions: COVID-19 CT infiltrates pre-dated symptoms in two-thirds of patients. Body temperature elevation and laboratory evaluations may identify asymptomatic patients with SARS-CoV-2 CT infiltrates at presentation, and the characteristics of CT infiltrates could help identify asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 patients who subsequently develop symptoms. The role of chest CT in COVID-19 may be illuminated by a better understanding of CT infiltrates in patients with early disease or SARS-CoV-2 exposure.

Key points: • Forty-eight of 74 (65%) pre-selected asymptomatic patients with SARS-CoV-2 had abnormal chest CT findings. • CT infiltrates pre-dated symptom onset by 3.8 days (range 1-5). • KL-6, CRP, and elevated body temperature identified patients with CT infiltrates. Higher infiltrate volume, percent lung involvement, and pulmonary consolidation identified patients who developed symptoms.

Keywords: Asymptomatic infections; Pneumonia; SARS-CoV; Virus shedding.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • China / epidemiology
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Humans
  • Japan
  • Retrospective Studies
  • SARS-CoV-2*
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed