Early detection of COVID-19 infection hotspots in England using large-scale self-reported data from a mobile app
17 November 2020
COVID Symptom Study app data on symptoms and PCR test results were used to identify 35-80% of UK regions before they were subject to local lockdowns
Background As many countries seek to slow the spread of COVID-19 without reimposing national restrictions, it has become important to track the disease at a local level to identify areas in need of targeted intervention.
Methods We performed modelling on longitudinal, self-reported data from users of the COVID Symptom Study app in England between 24 March and 29 September, 2020. Combining a symptom-based predictive model for COVID-19 positivity and RT-PCR tests provided by the Department of Health we were able to estimate disease incidence, prevalence and effective reproduction number. Geographically granular estimates were used to highlight regions with rapidly increasing case numbers, or hotspots.
Findings More than 2.8 million app users in England provided 120 million daily reports of their symptoms, and recorded the results of 170,000 PCR tests. On a national level our estimates of incidence and prevalence showed similar sensitivity to changes as two national community surveys: the ONS and REACT-1 studies. On 28 September 2020 we estimated 15,841 (95% CI 14,023-17,885) daily cases, a prevalence of 0.53% (95% CI 0.45-0.60), and R(t) of 1.17 (95% credible interval 1.15-1.19) in England. On a geographically granular level, on 28 September 2020 we detected 15 of the 20 regions with highest incidence according to Government test data, with indications that our method may be able to detect rapid case increases in regions where Government testing provision is more limited.
Interpretation Self-reported data from mobile applications can provide an agile resource to inform policymakers during a fast-moving pandemic, serving as an independent and complementary resource to more traditional instruments for disease surveillance.
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