Considerable uncertainty surrounds the timeline of introductions and onsets of local transmission of SARS-CoV-2 globally1–7. Although a limited number of SARS-CoV-2 introductions were reported in January and February 20208,9, the narrowness of the initial testing criteria, combined with a slow growth in testing capacity and porous travel screening10, left many countries vulnerable to unmitigated, cryptic transmission. Here we use a global metapopulation epidemic model to provide a mechanistic understanding of the early dispersal of infections, and the temporal windows of the introduction and onset of SARS-CoV-2 local transmission in Europe and the United States. We find that community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 was likely in several areas of Europe and the United States by January 2020, and estimate that by early March, only 1 to 3 in 100 SARS-CoV-2 infections were detected by surveillance systems. The modelling results highlight international travel as the key driver of the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 with possible introductions and transmission events as early as December 2019–January 2020. We find a heterogeneous, geographic distribution of cumulative infection attack rates by 4 July 2020, ranging from 0.78%–15.2% across US states and 0.19%–13.2% in European countries. Our approach complements phylogenetic analyses and other surveillance approaches and provides insights that can be used to design innovative, model-driven surveillance systems that guide enhanced testing and response strategies.
Recommended citation: Davis, J.T., Chinazzi, M., Perra, N. et al. (2021) "Cryptic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and the first COVID-19 wave". Nature (2021).