Importance: Several studies were conducted to estimate the average incubation period of COVID-19; however, the incubation period of COVID-19 caused by different SARS-CoV-2 variants is not well described.
Objective: To systematically assess the incubation period of COVID-19 and the incubation periods of COVID-19 caused by different SARS-CoV-2 variants in published studies.
Data sources: PubMed, EMBASE, and ScienceDirect were searched between December 1, 2019, and February 10, 2022.
Study selection: Original studies of the incubation period of COVID-19, defined as the time from infection to the onset of signs and symptoms.
Data extraction and synthesis: Following the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses (PRISMA) reporting guideline, 3 reviewers independently extracted the data from the eligible studies in March 2022. The parameters, or sufficient information to facilitate calculation of those values, were derived from random-effects meta-analysis.
Main outcomes and measures: The mean estimate of the incubation period and different SARS-CoV-2 strains.
Results: A total of 142 studies with 8112 patients were included. The pooled incubation period was 6.57 days (95% CI, 6.26-6.88) and ranged from 1.80 to 18.87 days. The incubation period of COVID-19 caused by the Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Omicron variants were reported in 1 study (with 6374 patients), 1 study (10 patients), 6 studies (2368 patients) and 5 studies (829 patients), respectively. The mean incubation period of COVID-19 was 5.00 days (95% CI, 4.94-5.06 days) for cases caused by the Alpha variant, 4.50 days (95% CI, 1.83-7.17 days) for the Beta variant, 4.41 days (95% CI, 3.76-5.05 days) for the Delta variant, and 3.42 days (95% CI, 2.88-3.96 days) for the Omicron variant. The mean incubation was 7.43 days (95% CI, 5.75-9.11 days) among older patients (ie, aged over 60 years old), 8.82 days (95% CI, 8.19-9.45 days) among infected children (ages 18 years or younger), 6.99 days (95% CI, 6.07-7.92 days) among patients with nonsevere illness, and 6.69 days (95% CI, 4.53-8.85 days) among patients with severe illness.
Conclusions and relevance: The findings of this study suggest that SARS-CoV-2 has evolved and mutated continuously throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, producing variants with different enhanced transmission and virulence. Identifying the incubation period of different variants is a key factor in determining the isolation period.