There’s something strange about this coronavirus pandemic. Even after months of extensive research by the global scientific community, many questions remain open.
Why, for instance, was there such an enormous death toll in northern Italy, but not the rest of the country? Just three contiguous regions in northern Italy have 25,000 of the country’s nearly 36,000 total deaths; just one region, Lombardy, has about 17,000 deaths. Almost all of these were concentrated in the first few months of the outbreak. What happened in Quito, Ecuador, in April, when so many thousands died so quickly that bodies were abandoned in the sidewalks and streets? Why, in the spring of 2020, did so few cities account for a substantial portion of global deaths, while many others with similar density, weather, age distribution, and travel patterns were spared? What can we really learn from Sweden, hailed as a great success by some because of its low case counts and deaths as the rest of Europe experiences a second wave, and as a big failure by others because it did not lock down and suffered excessive death rates earlier in the pandemic? Why did widespread predictions of catastrophe in Japan not bear out? The baffling examples go on.
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. News media have produced multiple explainers and visualizations for it. Movies praised for their scientific accuracy on pandemics are lauded for having characters explain the “all-important” R0. Dashboards track its real-time evolution, often referred to as R or Rt, in response to our interventions. (If people are masking and isolating or immunity is rising, a disease can’t spread the same way anymore, hence the difference between R0 and R.)
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.
This kind of behavior, alternating between being super infectious and fairly noninfectious, is exactly what k captures, and what focusing solely on R hides. Samuel Scarpino, an assistant professor of epidemiology and complex systems at Northeastern, told me that this has been a huge challenge, especially for health authorities in Western societies, where the pandemic playbook was geared toward the flu—and not without reason, because pandemic flu is a genuine threat. However, influenza does not have the same level of clustering behavior.
Cevik identifies “prolonged contact, poor ventilation, [a] highly infectious person, [and] crowding” as the key elements for a super-spreader event. Super-spreading can also occur indoors beyond the six-feet guideline, because SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen causing COVID-19, can travel through the air and accumulate, especially if ventilation is poor. Given that some people infect others before they show symptoms, or when they have very mild or even no symptoms, it’s not always possible to know if we are highly infectious ourselves. We don’t even know if there are more factors yet to be discovered that influence super-spreading. But we don’t need to know all the sufficient factors that go into a super-spreading event to avoid what seems to be a necessary condition most of the time: many people, especially in a poorly ventilated indoor setting, and especially not wearing masks. As Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida, told me, given the huge numbers associated with these clusters, targeting them would be very effective in getting our transmission numbers down.
Overdispersion should also inform our contact-tracing efforts. In fact, we may need to turn them upside down. Right now, many states and nations engage in what is called forward or prospective contact tracing. Once an infected person is identified, we try to find out with whom they interacted afterward so that we can warn, test, isolate, and quarantine these potential exposures. But that’s not the only way to trace contacts. And, because of overdispersion, it’s not necessarily where the most bang for the buck lies. Instead, in many cases, we should try to work backwards to see who first infected the subject.
Is this a possible breakthrough? Does knowing this give us enough of a basis upon which to be more specific in targeting covid where it actually spreads?