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The natural history of disease in patients infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) remained obscure during the early pandemic.


Our objective was to estimate epidemiological parameters of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and assess the relative infectivity of the incubation period.


We estimated the distributions of four epidemiological parameters of SARS-CoV-2 transmission using a large database of COVID-19 cases and potential transmission pairs of cases, and assessed their heterogeneity by demographics, epidemic phase and geographical region. We further calculated the time of peak infectivity and quantified the proportion of secondary infections during the incubation period.


The median incubation period was 7.2 (95% confidence interval (CI): 6.9‒7.5) days. The median serial and generation intervals were similar, 4.7 (95% CI: 4.2‒5.3) and 4.6 (95% CI: 4.2‒5.1) days, respectively. Paediatric cases < 18 years had a longer incubation period than adult age groups (p = 0.007). The median incubation period increased from 4.4 days before 25 January to 11.5 days after 31 January (p < 0.001), whereas the median serial (generation) interval contracted from 5.9 (4.8) days before 25 January to 3.4 (3.7) days after. The median time from symptom onset to discharge was also shortened from 18.3 before 22 January to 14.1 days after. Peak infectivity occurred 1 day before symptom onset on average, and the incubation period accounted for 70% of transmission.


The high infectivity during the incubation period led to short generation and serial intervals, necessitating aggressive control measures such as early case finding and quarantine of close contacts.


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