Effectiveness of isolation, testing, contact tracing and physical distancing on reducing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in different settings: a mathematical modelling study

Status: Paper accepted at journal | First online: 23-04-2020 | Last update: 26-05-2020

Background: Isolation of symptomatic cases and tracing of contacts has been used as an early COVID-19 containment measure in many countries, with additional physical distancing measures also introduced as outbreaks have grown. To maintain control of infection while also reducing disruption to populations, there is a need to understand what combination of measures – including novel digital tracing approaches and less intensive physical distancing – may be required to reduce transmission.

Methods: Using a model of individual-level transmission stratified by setting (household, work, school, other) based on BBC Pandemic data from 40,162 UK participants, we simulated the impact of a range of different testing, isolation, tracing and physical distancing scenarios. As well as estimating reduction in effective reproduction number, we estimated, for a given level of COVID-19 incidence, the number of contacts that would be newly quarantined each day under different strategies.

Results: Under optimistic but plausible assumptions, we estimated that combined isolation and tracing strategies would reduce transmission more than mass testing or self-isolation alone (50–60% compared to 2–30%). If limits are placed on gatherings outside of home/school/work, then manual contact tracing of acquaintances only could have a similar effect on transmission reduction as detailed contact tracing. In a scenario where there were 1,000 new symptomatic cases that met the definition to trigger contact tracing per day, we estimated in most contact tracing strategies, 15,000– 40,000 contacts would be newly quarantined each day.

Conclusions: Consistent with previous modelling studies and country-specific COVID-19 responses to date, our analysis estimates that a high proportion of cases would need to self-isolate and a high proportion of their contacts to be successfully traced to ensure an effective reproduction number that is below one in the absence of other measures. If combined with moderate physical distancing measures, self-isolation and contact tracing would be more likely to achieve control.

Read the full preprint here and the appendix here.