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Transient dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 as England exited national lockdown

By Steven Riley, Kylie E. C. Ainslie, Oliver Eales, Caroline E. Walters, Haowei Wang, Christina Atchinson, Peter J. Diggle, Deborah Ashby, Christl Donnelly, Graham Cooke, Wendy S Barclay, Helen Ward, Ara Darzi, Paul Elliott

Posted 06 Aug 2020
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.08.05.20169078

Control of the COVID-19 pandemic requires a detailed understanding of prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 virus in the population. Case-based surveillance is necessarily biased towards symptomatic individuals and sensitive to varying patterns of reporting in space and time. The real-time assessment of community transmission antigen study (REACT-1) is designed to overcome these limitations by obtaining prevalence data based on a nose and throat swab RT-PCR test among a representative community-based sample in England, including asymptomatic individuals. Here, we describe results comparing rounds 1 and 2 carried out during May and mid June / early July 2020 respectively across 315 lower tier local authority areas. In round 1 we found 159 positive samples from 120,620 tested swabs while round 2 there were 123 positive samples from 159,199 tested swabs, indicating a downwards trend in prevalence from 0.13% (95% CI, 0.11%, 0.15%) to 0.077% (0.065%, 0.092%), a halving time of 38 (28, 58) days, and an R of 0.89 (0.86, 0.93). The proportion of swab-positive participants who were asymptomatic at the time of sampling increased from 69% (61%, 76%) in round 1 to 81% (73%, 87%) in round 2. Although health care and care home workers were infected far more frequently than other workers in round 1, the odds were markedly reduced in round 2. Age patterns of infection changed between rounds, with a reduction by a factor of five in prevalence in 18 to 24 year olds. Our data were suggestive of increased risk of infection in Black and Asian (mainly South Asian) ethnicities. Using regional and detailed case location data, we detected increased infection intensity in and near London. Under multiple sensitivity analyses, our results were robust to the possibility of false positives. At the end of the initial lockdown in England, we found continued decline in prevalence and a shift in the pattern of infection by age and occupation. Community-based sampling, including asymptomatic individuals, is necessary to fully understand the nature of ongoing transmission.

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