An imperfect tool: COVID-19 'test & trace' success relies on minimising the impact of false negatives and continuation of physical distancing.
Davis EL., Lucas TCD., Borlase A., Pollington TM., Abbott S., Ayabina D., Crellen T., Hellewell J., Pi L., Medley GF., Hollingsworth TD., Klepac P.
<jats:p>Background: Following a consistent decline in COVID-19-related deaths in the UK throughout May 2020, it is recognised that contact tracing will be vital to relaxing physical distancing measures. The increasingly evident role of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission means testing is central to control, but test sensitivity estimates are as low as 65%. Methods: We extend an existing UK-focused branching process model for contact tracing, adding diagnostic testing and refining parameter estimates to demonstrate the impact of poor test sensitivity and suggest mitigation methods. We also investigate the role of super-spreading events, providing estimates of the relationship between infections, cases detected and hospitalisations, and consider how tracing coverage and speed affects outbreak risk. Findings: Incorporating poor sensitivity testing into tracing protocols could reduce efficacy, due to false negative results impacting isolation duration. However, a 7-day isolation period for all negative-testing individuals could mitigate this effect. Similarly, reducing delays to testing following exposure has a negligible impact on the risk of future outbreaks, but could undermine control if negative-testing individuals immediately cease isolating. Even 100% tracing of contacts will miss cases, which could prompt large localised outbreaks if physical distancing measures are relaxed prematurely. Interpretation: It is imperative that test results are interpreted with caution due to high false-negative rates and that contact tracing is used in combination with physical distancing measures. If the risks associated with imperfect test sensitivity are mitigated, we find that contact tracing can facilitate control when the reproduction number with physical distancing, Rs, is less than 1.5.</jats:p>