Research Article

Inferring change points in the spread of COVID-19 reveals the effectiveness of interventions

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Science  10 Jul 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6500, eabb9789
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb9789

Keeping the lid on infection spread

From February to April 2020, many countries introduced variations on social distancing measures to slow the ravages of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Publicly available data show that Germany has been particularly successful in minimizing death rates. Dehning et al. quantified three governmental interventions introduced to control the outbreak. The authors predicted that the third governmental intervention—a strict contact ban since 22 March—switched incidence from growth to decay. They emphasize that relaxation of controls must be done carefully, not only because there is a 2-week lag between a measure being enacted and the effect on case reports but also because the three measures used in Germany only just kept virus spread below the growth threshold.

Science, this issue p. eabb9789

Structured Abstract


When faced with the outbreak of a novel epidemic such as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), rapid response measures are required by individuals, as well as by society as a whole, to mitigate the spread of the virus. During this initial, time-critical period, neither the central epidemiological parameters nor the effectiveness of interventions such as cancellation of public events, school closings, or social distancing is known.


As one of the key epidemiological parameters, we inferred the spreading rate λ from confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections using the example of Germany. We apply Bayesian inference based on Markov chain Monte Carlo sampling to a class of compartmental models [susceptible-infected-recovered (SIR)]. Our analysis characterizes the temporal change of the spreading rate and allows us to identify potential change points. Furthermore, it enables short-term forecast scenarios that assume various degrees of social distancing. A detailed description is provided in the accompanying paper, and the models, inference, and forecasts are available on GitHub ( Although we apply the model to Germany, our approach can be readily adapted to other countries or regions.


In Germany, interventions to contain the COVID-19 outbreak were implemented in three steps over 3 weeks: (i) Around 9 March 2020, large public events such as soccer matches were canceled; (ii) around 16 March 2020, schools, childcare facilities, and many stores were closed; and (iii) on 23 March 2020, a far-reaching contact ban (Kontaktsperre) was imposed by government authorities; this included the prohibition of even small public gatherings as well as the closing of restaurants and all nonessential stores.

From the observed case numbers of COVID-19, we can quantify the impact of these measures on the disease spread using change point analysis. Essentially, we find that at each change point the spreading rate λ decreased by ~40%. At the first change point, assumed around 9 March 2020, λ decreased from 0.43 to 0.25, with 95% credible intervals (CIs) of [0.35, 0.51] and [0.20, 0.30], respectively. At the second change point, assumed around 16 March 2020, λ decreased to 0.15 (CI [0.12, 0.20]). Both changes in λ slowed the spread of the virus but still implied exponential growth (see red and orange traces in the figure).

To contain the disease spread, i.e., to turn exponential growth into a decline of new cases, the spreading rate has to be smaller than the recovery rate μ = 0.13 (CI [0.09, 0.18]). This critical transition was reached with the third change point, which resulted in λ = 0.09 (CI [0.06, 0.13]; see blue trace in the figure), assumed around 23 March 2020.

From the peak position of daily new cases, one could conclude that the transition from growth to decline was already reached at the end of March. However, the observed transient decline can be explained by a short-term effect that originates from a sudden change in the spreading rate (see Fig. 2C in the main text).

As long as interventions and the concurrent individual behavior frequently change the spreading rate, reliable short- and long-term forecasts are very difficult. As the figure shows, the three example scenarios (representing the effects up to the first, second, and third change point) quickly diverge from each other and, consequently, span a considerable range of future case numbers.

Inference and subsequent forecasts are further complicated by the delay of ~2 weeks between an intervention and the first useful estimates of the new λ (which are derived from the reported case numbers). Because of this delay, any uncertainty in the magnitude of social distancing in the previous 2 weeks can have a major impact on the case numbers in the subsequent 2 weeks. Beyond 2 weeks, the case numbers depend on our future behavior, for which we must make explicit assumptions. In sum, future interventions (such as lifting restrictions) should be implemented cautiously to respect the delayed visibility of their effects.


We developed a Bayesian framework for the spread of COVID-19 to infer central epidemiological parameters and the timing and magnitude of intervention effects. With such an approach, the effects of interventions can be assessed in a timely manner. Future interventions and lifting of restrictions can be modeled as additional change points, enabling short-term forecasts for case numbers. In general, our approach may help to infer the efficiency of measures taken in other countries and inform policy-makers about tightening, loosening, and selecting appropriate measures for containment of COVID-19.

Bayesian inference of SIR model parameters from daily new cases of COVID-19 enables us to assess the impact of interventions.

In Germany, three interventions (mild social distancing, strong social distancing, and contact ban) were enacted consecutively (circles). Colored lines depict the inferred models that include the impact of one, two, or three interventions (red, orange, or green, respectively, with individual data cutoff) or all available data until 21 April 2020 (blue). Forecasts (dashed lines) show how case numbers would have developed without the effects of the subsequent change points. Note the delay between intervention and first possible inference of parameters caused by the reporting delay and the necessary accumulation of evidence (gray arrows). Shaded areas indicate 50% and 95% Bayesian credible intervals.


As coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is rapidly spreading across the globe, short-term modeling forecasts provide time-critical information for decisions on containment and mitigation strategies. A major challenge for short-term forecasts is the assessment of key epidemiological parameters and how they change when first interventions show an effect. By combining an established epidemiological model with Bayesian inference, we analyzed the time dependence of the effective growth rate of new infections. Focusing on COVID-19 spread in Germany, we detected change points in the effective growth rate that correlate well with the times of publicly announced interventions. Thereby, we could quantify the effect of interventions and incorporate the corresponding change points into forecasts of future scenarios and case numbers. Our code is freely available and can be readily adapted to any country or region.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution license, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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