A modelling approach to estimate the transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 during periods of high, low, and zero case incidence
Nick Golding, David J Price, Gerard Ryan, Jodie McVernon, James M McCaw, Freya M Shearer
eLife, 20 January 2023. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.78089
Against a backdrop of widespread global transmission, a number of countries have successfully brought large outbreaks of COVID-19 under control and maintained near-elimination status. A key element of epidemic response is the tracking of disease transmissibility in near real-time. During major out-breaks, the effective reproduction number can be estimated from a time-series of case, hospitalisation or death counts. In low or zero incidence settings, knowing the potential for the virus to spread is a response priority. Absence of case data means that this potential cannot be estimated directly. We present a semi-mechanistic modelling framework that draws on time-series of both behavioural data and case data (when disease activity is present) to estimate the transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 from periods of high to low- or zero- case incidence, with a coherent transition in interpretation across the changing epidemiological situations. Of note, during periods of epidemic activity, our analysis recovers the effective reproduction number, while during periods of low- or zero- case incidence, it provides an estimate of transmission risk. This enables tracking and planning of progress towards the control of large outbreaks, maintenance of virus suppression, and monitoring the risk posed by re-introduction of the virus. We demonstrate the value of our methods by reporting on their use throughout 2020 in Australia, where they have become a central component of the national COVID-19 response.