Snowball Sampling Study Design for Serosurveys Early in Disease Outbreaks

Am J Epidemiol. 2021 Apr 8;kwab098. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwab098. Online ahead of print.


Serological surveys can provide evidence of cases that were not previously detected, depict the spectrum of disease severity, and estimate the proportion of asymptomatic infections. To capture these parameters, survey sample sizes may need to be very large, especially when the overall infection rate is still low. Therefore, we propose the use of "snowball sampling" to enrich serological surveys by testing contacts of infected individuals identified in the early stages of an outbreak. For future emerging pandemics, this observational study sampling design can answer many key questions, such as estimating the asymptomatic proportion of all infected cases, the probability of a given clinical presentation for a seropositive individual, or the association between characteristics of either the host or the infection and seropositivity among contacts of index individuals. We provide examples, in the context of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, of studies and analysis methods using a snowball sample and perform a simulation study that demonstrates scenarios where snowball sampling can answer these questions more efficiently than other sampling schemes. We hope such study designs can be applied to provide valuable information to slow the present pandemic as it enters its next stage and in early stages of future pandemics.

Keywords: SARS-CoV-2; asymptomatic infection; contact tracing; coronavirus disease 2019; design effect; serosurvey sampling; transmission chain.