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Non-pharmaceutical interventions, vaccination and the Delta variant: epidemiological insights from modelling England's COVID-19 roadmap out of lockdown

By Raphael Sonabend, Lilith K Whittles, Natsuko Imai, Pablo N. Perez-Guzman, Edward S Knock, Thomas Rawson, Katy A.M. Gaythorpe, Bimandra A Djaafara, Wes Hinsley, Richard G. FitzJohn, John A. Lees, Divya Thekke Kanapram, Erik M Volz, Azra C Ghani, Neil M. Ferguson, Marc Baguelin, Anne Cori

Posted 18 Aug 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.08.17.21262164

Background: England's COVID-19 'roadmap out of lockdown' set out the timeline and conditions for the stepwise lifting of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) as vaccination roll-out continued. Here we assess the roadmap, the impact of the Delta variant, and potential future epidemic trajectories. Methods: We extended a model of SARS-CoV-2 transmission to incorporate vaccination and multi-strain dynamics to explicitly capture the emergence of the Delta variant. We calibrated the model to English surveillance data using a Bayesian evidence synthesis framework, then modelled the potential trajectory of the epidemic for a range of different schedules for relaxing NPIs. Findings: The roadmap was successful in offsetting the increased transmission resulting from lifting NPIs with increasing population immunity through vaccination. However due to the emergence of Delta, with an estimated transmission advantage of 73% (95%CrI: 68-79) over Alpha, fully lifting NPIs on 21 June 2021 as originally planned may have led to 3,400 (95%CrI: 1,300-4,400) peak daily hospital admissions under our central parameter scenario. Delaying until 19 July reduced peak hospitalisations by three-fold to 1,400 (95%CrI: 700-1,500) per day. There was substantial uncertainty in the epidemic trajectory, with particular sensitivity to estimates of vaccine effectiveness and the intrinsic transmissibility of Delta. Interpretation: Our findings show that the risk of a large wave of COVID hospitalisations resulting from lifting NPIs can be substantially mitigated if the timing of NPI relaxation is carefully balanced against vaccination coverage. However, with Delta, it may not be possible to fully lift NPIs without a third wave of hospitalisations and deaths, even if vaccination coverage is high. Variants of concern, their transmissibility, vaccine uptake, and vaccine effectiveness must be carefully monitored as countries relax pandemic control measures. Funding: National Institute for Health Research, UK Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust, UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

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