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A renewal equation model to assess roles and limitations of contact tracing for disease outbreak control

Published: 7 April 2021
Royal Society Open Science , Volume 8; doi:10.1098/rsos.202091

Abstract: We propose a deterministic model capturing essential features of contact tracing as part of public health non-pharmaceutical interventions to mitigate an outbreak of an infectious disease. By incorporating a mechanistic formulation of the processes at the individual level, we obtain an integral equation (delayed in calendar time and advanced in time since infection) for the probability that an infected individual is detected and isolated at any point in time. This is then coupled with a renewal equation for the total incidence to form a closed system describing the transmission dynamics involving contact tracing. We define and calculate basic and effective reproduction numbers in terms of pathogen characteristics and contact tracing implementation constraints. When applied to the case of SARS-CoV-2, our results show that only combinations of diagnosis of symptomatic infections and contact tracing that are almost perfect in terms of speed and coverage can attain control, unless additional measures to reduce overall community transmission are in place. Under constraints on the testing or tracing capacity, a temporary interruption of contact tracing may, depending on the overall growth rate and prevalence of the infection, lead to an irreversible loss of control even when the epidemic was previously contained.
Keywords: resource constraints / health and disease and epidemiology / COVID-19 / mathematical modelling / contact tracing / non-pharmaceutical interventions / renewal equation / time since infection

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