This Overlooked Variable Is the Key to the Pandemic
“The now-famed R0 (pronounced as “r-naught”) is an average measure of a pathogen’s contagiousness, or the mean number of susceptible people expected to become infected after being exposed to a person with the disease. If one ill person infects three others on average, the R0 is three. This parameter has been widely touted as a key factor in understanding how the pandemic operates.
Unfortunately, averages aren’t always useful for understanding the distribution of a phenomenon, especially if it has widely varying behavior. If Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, walks into a bar with 100 regular people in it, the average wealth in that bar suddenly exceeds $1 billion. If I also walk into that bar, not much will change. Clearly, the average is not that useful a number to understand the distribution of wealth in that bar, or how to change it. Sometimes, the mean is not the message. Meanwhile, if the bar has a person infected with COVID-19, and if it is also poorly ventilated and loud, causing people to speak loudly at close range, almost everyone in the room could potentially be infected—a pattern that’s been observed many times since the pandemic begin, and that is similarly not captured by R. That’s where the dispersion comes in.
There are COVID-19 incidents in which a single person likely infected 80 percent or more of the people in the room in just a few hours. But, at other times, COVID-19 can be surprisingly much less contagious. Overdispersion and super-spreading of this virus are found in research across the globe. A growing number of studies estimate that a majority of infected people may not infect a single other person. A recent paper found that in Hong Kong, which had extensive testing and contact tracing, about 19 percent of cases were responsible for 80 percent of transmission, while 69 percent of cases did not infect another person. This finding is not rare: Multiple studies from the beginning have suggested that as few as 10 to 20 percent of infected people may be responsible for as much as 80 to 90 percent of transmission, and that many people barely transmit it.
….We can think of disease patterns as leaning deterministic or stochastic: In the former, an outbreak’s distribution is more linear and predictable; in the latter, randomness plays a much larger role and predictions are hard, if not impossible, to make. In deterministic trajectories, we expect what happened yesterday to give us a good sense of what to expect tomorrow. Stochastic phenomena, however, don’t operate like that—the same inputs don’t always produce the same outputs, and things can tip over quickly from one state to the other. As Scarpino told me, “Diseases like the flu are pretty nearly deterministic and R0 (while flawed) paints about the right picture (nearly impossible to stop until there’s a vaccine).” That’s not necessarily the case with super-spreading diseases.
…In study after study, we see that super-spreading clusters of COVID-19 almost overwhelmingly occur in poorly ventilated, indoor environments where many people congregate over time—weddings, churches, choirs, gyms, funerals, restaurants, and such—especially when there is loud talking or singing without masks. For super-spreading events to occur, multiple things have to be happening at the same time, and the risk is not equal in every setting and activity, Muge Cevik, a clinical lecturer in infectious diseases and medical virology at the University of St. Andrews and a co-author of a recent extensive review of transmission conditions for COVID-19, told me.”
This overdispersion, the article suggests has implications on contact tracing, type of testing and in general how the pandemic can be brought under control – by focusing on potential super spreading events, something that Japan seems to have done quite successfully without any meaningful lockdown measures, as the article elaborates.