Asymptomatic infections have hampered the ability to characterize and prevent the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 throughout the pandemic. Although asymptomatic infections reduce severity at the individual level, they can make population-level outcomes worse if asymptomatic individuals - unaware they are infected - transmit more than symptomatic individuals. Using an epidemic model, we show that intermediate levels of asymptomatic infection lead to the highest levels of epidemic fatalities when the decrease in symptomatic transmission, due either to individual behavior or mitigation efforts, is strong. We generalize this result to include presymptomatic transmission, showing that intermediate levels of nonsymptomatic transmission lead to the highest levels of fatalities. Finally, we extend our framework to illustrate how the intersection of asymptomatic spread and immunity profiles determine epidemic trajectories, including population-level severity, of future variants. In particular, when immunity provides protection against symptoms, but not against infections or deaths, epidemic trajectories can have faster growth rates and higher peaks, leading to more total deaths. Conversely, even modest levels of protection against infection can mitigate the population-level effects of asymptomatic spread.
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