The incubation period of COVID-19: a global meta-analysis of 53 studies and a Chinese observation study of 11 545 patients

Infect Dis Poverty. 2021 Sep 17;10(1):119. doi: 10.1186/s40249-021-00901-9.


Background: The incubation period is a crucial index of epidemiology in understanding the spread of the emerging Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). In this study, we aimed to describe the incubation period of COVID-19 globally and in the mainland of China.

Methods: The searched studies were published from December 1, 2019 to May 26, 2021 in CNKI, Wanfang, PubMed, and Embase databases. A random-effect model was used to pool the mean incubation period. Meta-regression was used to explore the sources of heterogeneity. Meanwhile, we collected 11 545 patients in the mainland of China outside Hubei from January 19, 2020 to September 21, 2020. The incubation period fitted with the Log-normal model by the coarseDataTools package.

Results: A total of 3235 articles were searched, 53 of which were included in the meta-analysis. The pooled mean incubation period of COVID-19 was 6.0 days (95% confidence interval [CI] 5.6-6.5) globally, 6.5 days (95% CI 6.1-6.9) in the mainland of China, and 4.6 days (95% CI 4.1-5.1) outside the mainland of China (P = 0.006). The incubation period varied with age (P = 0.005). Meanwhile, in 11 545 patients, the mean incubation period was 7.1 days (95% CI 7.0-7.2), which was similar to the finding in our meta-analysis.

Conclusions: For COVID-19, the mean incubation period was 6.0 days globally but near 7.0 days in the mainland of China, which will help identify the time of infection and make disease control decisions. Furthermore, attention should also be paid to the region- or age-specific incubation period.

Keywords: COVID-19; Incubation period; Meta-analysis.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • China / epidemiology
  • Databases, Factual
  • Female
  • Global Health* / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Infectious Disease Incubation Period*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Observational Studies as Topic
  • Young Adult