SARS-CoV-2 incubation period: where does the 14 days come from?

If you’ve had to self-isolate for 14 days following a possible exposure to somebody with COVID-19, you’ll relate to just how long it feels. Towards the start of the pandemic, the Otter family entered a 14 day household self-isolation due to COVID-like symptoms in the pups. At that time, mass testing was not available and so we’re left hanging to this day as to where or not it was or wasn’t. But where does the 14 days come from? And how does the probability of developing COVID-19 following exposure change over time? I was asked this yesterday, and came across a very hand review and meta-analysis of studies related to the SARS-CoV-2 incubation period.

The review includes, published in BMJ Open, includes nine studies in the meta-analysis. Overall, the median incubation period was 5.1 days, and the 95% percentile was 11.7 days (see the Figure below). The team recognise that things will change as new studies come along, so helpfully have published an R Shiny app that will be updated as new data is published. Quite a clever trick, although the Shiny app isn’t the most intuitive.

Figure: How the probability of developing COVID-19 changes over time following exposure.

In answer to your specific question about the difference in risk on day 10 vs. day 14 following exposure, this is tricky and will depend on a number of factors. However, the risk of developing COVID from the point of exposure changes over the 14 days peaking around day 4/5. I’ve attached a systematic review and meta-analysis of the COVID incubation period. Figure 5 is probably most helpful, which shows from the meta-analysis of 8 studies that approx. 90% of individuals who would eventually test positive had tested positive by day 10, whereas >95% had tested positive by day 14.

International guidelines recommend an isolation period of 14 days following patient or staff exposure to COVID-19 (see PHE and CDC). So why 14 days? And not 13 or 16? As you can see, the odd person developed COVID-19 outside of the 14 day window since exposure, but this is uncommon. And I think there’s something pragmatic about 14 days being 2 weeks!