Implication of backward contact tracing in the presence of overdispersed transmission in COVID-19 outbreaks

Wellcome Open Res. 2021 Mar 31;5:239. doi: 10.12688/wellcomeopenres.16344.3. eCollection 2020.


Introduction: Contact tracing has the potential to control outbreaks without the need for stringent physical distancing policies, e.g. civil lockdowns. Unlike forward contact tracing, backward contact tracing identifies the source of newly detected cases. This approach is particularly valuable when there is high individual-level variation in the number of secondary transmissions (overdispersion). Methods: By using a simple branching process model, we explored the potential of combining backward contact tracing with more conventional forward contact tracing for control of COVID-19. We estimated the typical size of clusters that can be reached by backward tracing and simulated the incremental effectiveness of combining backward tracing with conventional forward tracing. Results: Across ranges of parameter values consistent with dynamics of SARS-CoV-2, backward tracing is expected to identify a primary case generating 3-10 times more infections than a randomly chosen case, typically increasing the proportion of subsequent cases averted by a factor of 2-3. The estimated number of cases averted by backward tracing became greater with a higher degree of overdispersion. Conclusion: Backward contact tracing can be an effective tool for outbreak control, especially in the presence of overdispersion as is observed with SARS-CoV-2.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; backward tracing; contact tracing; overdispersion.