Challenges in control of COVID-19: short doubling times and long delay to effect of interventions
Pellis L., Scarabel F., Stage H., Overton C., Chappell L., Lythgoe K., Fearon E., Bennett E., Curran-Sebastian J., Das R., Fyles M., Lewkowicz H., Pang X., Vekaria B., Webb L., House T., Hall I.
The unconstrained growth rate of COVID-19 is crucial for measuring the impact of interventions, assessing worst-case scenarios, and calibrating mathematical models for policy planning. However, robust estimates are limited, with scientific focus on the time-insensitive basic reproduction number R 0. Using multiple countries, data streams and methods, we consistently estimate that European COVID-19 cases doubled every three days when unconstrained, with the impact of physical distancing interventions typically seen about nine days after implementation, during which time cases grew eight-fold. The combination of fast growth and long detection delays explains the struggle in countries’ response better than large values of R 0 alone, and warns against relaxing physical distancing measures too quickly. Testing and tracing are fundamental in shortening such delays, thus preventing cases from escalating unnoticed.