Trading contact tracing efficiency for finding patient zero

Marcin Waniek, Petter Holme, Katayoun Farrahi, Rémi Emonet, Manuel Cebrian, Talal Rahwan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, identifying the origin of a pandemic remains a challenging task. The search for patient zero may benefit from the widely-used and well-established toolkit of contact tracing methods, although this possibility has not been explored to date. We fill this gap by investigating the prospect of performing the source detection task as part of the contact tracing process, i.e., the possibility of tuning the parameters of the process in order to pinpoint the origin of the infection. To this end, we perform simulations on temporal networks using a recent diffusion model that recreates the dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic. We find that increasing the budget for contact tracing beyond a certain threshold can significantly improve the identification of infected individuals but has diminishing returns in terms of source detection. Moreover, disease variants of higher infectivity make it easier to find the source but harder to identify infected individuals. Finally, we unravel a seemingly-intrinsic trade-off between the use of contact tracing to either identify infected nodes or detect the source of infection. This trade-off suggests that focusing on the identification of patient zero may come at the expense of identifying infected individuals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number22582
JournalScientific reports
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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