Symptoms and SARS-CoV-2 positivity in the general population in the UK
Vihta K-D., Pouwels KB., Peto T., Pritchard E., Eyre DW., House T., Gethings O., Studley R., Rourke E., Cook D., Diamond I., Crook D., Matthews PC., Stoesser N., Walker AS.
ABSTRACTBackgroundSeveral community-based studies have assessed the ability of different symptoms to identify COVID-19 infections, but few have compared symptoms over time (reflecting SARS-CoV-2 variants) and by vaccination status.MethodsUsing data and samples collected by the COVID-19 Infection Survey at regular visits to representative households across the UK, we compared symptoms in new PCR-positives and comparator test-negative controls.ResultsFrom 26/4/2020-7/8/2021, 27,869 SARS-CoV-2 PCR-positive episodes occurred in 27,692 participants (median 42 years (IQR 22-58)); 13,427 (48%) self-reported symptoms (“symptomatic positive episodes”). The comparator group comprised 3,806,692 test-negative visits (457,215 participants); 130,612 (3%) self-reported symptoms (“symptomatic negative visit”). Reporting of any symptoms in positive episodes varied over calendar time, reflecting changes in prevalence of variants, incidental changes (e.g. seasonal pathogens, schools re-opening) and vaccination roll-out. There was a small increase in sore throat reporting in symptomatic positive episodes and negative visits from April-2021. After May-2021 when Delta emerged there were substantial increases in headache and fever in positives, but not in negatives. Although specific symptom reporting in symptomatic positive episodes vs. negative visits varied by age, sex, and ethnicity, only small improvements in symptom-based infection detection were obtained; e.g. adding fatigue/weakness or all eight symptoms to the classic four symptoms (cough, fever, loss of taste/smell) increased sensitivity from 74% to 81% to 90% but tests per positive from 4.6 to 5.3 to 8.7.ConclusionsWhilst SARS-CoV-2-associated symptoms vary by variant, vaccination status and demographics, differences are modest and do not warrant large-scale changes to targeted testing approaches given resource implications.SummaryWithin the COVID-19 Infection Survey, recruiting representative households across the UK general population, SARS-CoV-2-associated symptoms varied by viral variant, vaccination status and demographics. However, differences are modest and do not currently warrant large-scale changes to targeted testing approaches.