Different forms of superspreading lead to different outcomes: heterogeneity in infectiousness and contact behavior relevant for the case of SARS-CoV-2

E. J. Kuylen, A. Torneri, L. Willem, P. J. K. Libin, S. Abrams, P. Coletti, N. Franco, F. Verelst, P. Beutels, J. Liesenborgs, N. Hens

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Abstract

Superspreading events play an important role in the spread of several pathogens, such as SARS-CoV-2. While the basic reproduction number of the original Wuhan SARS-CoV-2 is estimated to be about 3 for Belgium, there is substantial inter-individual variation in the number of secondary cases each infected individual causes—with most infectious individuals generating no or only a few secondary cases, while about 20% of infectious individuals is responsible for 80% of new infections. Multiple factors contribute to the occurrence of superspreading events: heterogeneity in infectiousness, individual variations in susceptibility, differences in contact behavior, and the environment in which transmission takes place. While superspreading has been included in several infectious disease transmission models, research into the effects of different forms of superspreading on the spread of pathogens remains limited. To disentangle the effects of infectiousness-related heterogeneity on the one hand and contact-related heterogeneity on the other, we implemented both forms of superspreading in an individual-based model describing the transmission and spread of SARS-CoV-2 in a synthetic Belgian population. We considered its impact on viral spread as well as on epidemic resurgence after a period of social distancing. We found that the effects of superspreading driven by heterogeneity in infectiousness are different from the effects of superspreading driven by heterogeneity in contact behavior. On the one hand, a higher level of infectiousness-related heterogeneity results in a lower risk of an outbreak persisting following the introduction of one infected individual into the population. Outbreaks that did persist led to fewer total cases and were slower, with a lower peak which occurred at a later point in time, and a lower herd immunity threshold. Finally, the risk of resurgence of an outbreak following a period of lockdown decreased. On the other hand, when contact-related heterogeneity was high, this also led to fewer cases in total during persistent outbreaks, but caused outbreaks to be more explosive in regard to other aspects (such as higher peaks which occurred earlier, and a higher herd immunity threshold). Finally, the risk of resurgence of an outbreak following a period of lockdown increased. We found that these effects were conserved when testing combinations of infectiousness-related and contact-related heterogeneity.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1009980
JournalPLOS Computational Biology
Volume18
Issue number8
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 22 Aug 2022

Keywords

  • infectious diseases

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