Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 before and after symptom onset: impact of nonpharmaceutical interventions in China

Eur J Epidemiol. 2021 Apr;36(4):429-439. doi: 10.1007/s10654-021-00746-4. Epub 2021 Apr 21.


Nonpharmaceutical interventions, such as contact tracing and quarantine, have been the primary means of controlling the spread of SARS-CoV-2; however, it remains uncertain which interventions are most effective at reducing transmission at the population level. Using serial interval data from before and after the rollout of nonpharmaceutical interventions in China, we estimate that the relative frequency of presymptomatic transmission increased from 34% before the rollout to 71% afterward. The shift toward earlier transmission indicates a disproportionate reduction in transmission post-symptom onset. We estimate that, following the rollout of nonpharmaceutical interventions, transmission post-symptom onset was reduced by 82% whereas presymptomatic transmission decreased by only 16%. The observation that only one-third of transmission was presymptomatic at baseline, combined with the finding that NPIs reduced presymptomatic transmission by less than 20%, suggests that the overall impact of NPIs was driven in large part by reductions in transmission following symptom onset. This implies that interventions which limit opportunities for transmission in the later stages of infection, such as contact tracing and isolation, are particularly important for control of SARS-CoV-2. Interventions which specifically reduce opportunities for presymptomatic transmission, such as quarantine of asymptomatic contacts, are likely to have smaller, but non-negligible, effects on overall transmission.

Keywords: COVID-19; Nonpharmaceutical interventions; Presymptomatic transmission; SARS-CoV-2.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / physiopathology*
  • COVID-19 / transmission*
  • China
  • Contact Tracing
  • Databases, Factual
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Models, Statistical
  • Quarantine
  • SARS-CoV-2* / pathogenicity