The effect of inter-city travel restrictions on geographical spread of COVID-19: Evidence from Wuhan, China

Status: Paper under peer review | First online: 21-04-2020 | Last update: 21-04-2020

This study has not yet been peer reviewed.

Background: To contain the spread of COVID-19, a cordon sanitaire was put in place in Wuhan prior to the Lunar New Year, on 23 January 2020, restricting travel to other parts of China. We assess the efficacy of the cordon sanitaire to delay the introduction and onset of local transmission of COVID-19 in other major cities in mainland China.

Methods: We estimated the number of infected travellers from Wuhan to other major cities in mainland China from November 2019 to March 2020 using previously estimated COVID-19 prevalence in Wuhan and publicly available mobility data. We focused on Beijing, Chongqing, Hangzhou, and Shenzhen as four representative major cities to identify the potential independent contribution of the cordon sanitaire and holiday travel. To do this, we simulated outbreaks generated by infected arrivals in these destination cities using stochastic branching processes. We also modelled the effect of the cordon sanitaire in combination with reduced transmissibility scenarios representing the effect of local non-pharmaceutical interventions.

Findings: In the four cities, given the potentially high prevalence of COVID-19 in Wuhan between December 2019 and early January 2020, local transmission may have been seeded as early as 2 - 8 January 2020. By the time the cordon sanitaire was imposed, simulated case counts were likely in the hundreds. The cordon sanitaire alone did not substantially affect the epidemic progression in these cities, although it may have had some effect in smaller cities.

Interpretation: Our results indicate that the cordon sanitaire may not have prevented COVID-19 spread in major Chinese cities; local non-pharmaceutical interventions were likely more important for this.

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