A writer for The Atlantic argues that there’s “a potential, overlooked way of understanding this pandemic that would help answer [questions about it], reshuffle many of the current heated arguments, and, crucially, help us get the spread of COVID-19 under control”:
By now many people have heard about R0—the basic reproductive number of a pathogen, a measure of its contagiousness on average. But unless you’ve been reading scientific journals, you’re less likely to have encountered k, the measure of its dispersion. The definition of k is a mouthful, but it’s simply a way of asking whether a virus spreads in a steady manner or in big bursts, whereby one person infects many, all at once. After nine months of collecting epidemiological data, we know that this is an overdispersed pathogen, meaning that it tends to spread in clusters, but this knowledge has not yet fully entered our way of thinking about the pandemic—or our preventive practices.
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. . . . . Dashboards track its real-time evolution, often referred to as R or Rt, in response to our interventions. . .
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. . . .Clearly, the average is not that useful a number to understand the distribution of wealth in that bar, or how to change it. . . . 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 highly skewed, imbalanced distribution means that an early run of bad luck with a few super-spreading events, or clusters, can produce dramatically different outcomes even for otherwise similar countries. Scientists looked globally at known early-introduction events, in which an infected person comes into a country, and found that in some places, such imported cases led to no deaths or known infections, while in others, they sparked sizable outbreaks. . . . In Daegu, South Korea, just one woman, dubbed Patient 31, generated more than 5,000 known cases in a megachurch cluster.
Unsurprisingly, SARS-CoV, the previous incarnation of SARS-CoV-2 that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak, was also overdispersed in this way: The majority of infected people did not transmit it, but a few super-spreading events caused most of the outbreaks. MERS, another coronavirus cousin of SARS, also appears overdispersed, but luckily, it does not—yet—transmit well among humans.
This kind of behavior, alternating between being super infectious and fairly noninfectious, is exactly what k captures, and what focusing solely on R hides. . . .
Nature and society are replete with such imbalanced phenomena, some of which are said to work according to the Pareto principle, named after the sociologist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto’s insight is sometimes called the 80/20 principle—80 percent of outcomes of interest are caused by 20 percent of inputs—though the numbers don’t have to be that strict. Rather, the Pareto principle means that a small number of events or people are responsible for the majority of consequences. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked in the service sector, for example, where a small group of problem customers can create almost all the extra work. . . .
To fight a super-spreading disease effectively, policy makers need to figure out why super-spreading happens, and they need to understand how it affects everything, including our contact-tracing methods and our testing regimes.
There may be many different reasons a pathogen super-spreads. Yellow fever spreads mainly via the mosquito Aedes aegypti, but until the insect’s role was discovered, its transmission pattern bedeviled many scientists. . . . Much is still unknown about the super-spreading of SARS-CoV-2. It might be that some people are super-emitters of the virus, in that they spread it a lot more than other people. . . .
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 of the University of St. Andrews] 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.
Because of overdispersion, most people will have been infected by someone who also infected other people, because only a small percentage of people infect many at a time, whereas most infect zero or maybe one person. As Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist, . . . explained to me, if we can use retrospective contact tracing to find the person who infected our patient, and then trace the forward contacts of the infecting person, we are generally going to find a lot more cases compared with forward-tracing contacts of the infected patient. [Those] will merely identify potential exposures, many of which will not happen anyway, because most transmission chains die out on their own. . . .
Even in an overdispersed pandemic, it’s not pointless to do forward tracing to be able to warn and test people, if there are extra resources and testing capacity. But it doesn’t make sense to do forward tracing while not devoting enough resources to backward tracing and finding clusters, which cause so much damage. . . .
Perhaps one of the most interesting cases has been Japan, a country with middling luck that got hit early on and followed what appeared to be an unconventional model, not deploying mass testing and never fully shutting down. By the end of March, influential economists were publishing reports with dire warnings, predicting overloads in the hospital system and huge spikes in deaths. The predicted catastrophe never came to be, however, and although the country faced some future waves, there was never a large spike in deaths despite its aging population, uninterrupted use of mass transportation, dense cities, and lack of a formal lockdown.
[Hitoshi Oshitani of Japan’s COVID-19 Cluster Taskforce] told me that in Japan, they had noticed the overdispersion characteristics of COVID-19 as early as February, and thus created a strategy focusing mostly on cluster-busting, which tries to prevent one cluster from igniting another. Oshitani said he believes that “the chain of transmission cannot be sustained without a chain of clusters or a megacluster.” Japan thus carried out a cluster-busting approach, including undertaking aggressive backward tracing to uncover clusters. Japan also focused on ventilation, counseling its population to avoid places where the three C’s come together—crowds in closed spaces in close contact, especially if there’s talking or singing . . .
Oshitani contrasts the Japanese strategy, nailing almost every important feature of the pandemic early on, with the Western response, trying to eliminate the disease “one by one” when that’s not necessarily the main way it spreads. Indeed, Japan got its cases down, but kept up its vigilance: When the government started noticing an uptick in community cases, it initiated a state of emergency in April and tried hard to incentivize the kinds of businesses that could lead to super-spreading events, such as theaters, music venues, and sports stadiums, to close down temporarily. Now schools are back in session in person, and even stadiums are open—but without chanting.
It’s not always the restrictiveness of the rules, but whether they target the right dangers. As [one scientist] put it, “Japan’s commitment to ‘cluster-busting’ allowed it to achieve impressive mitigation with judiciously chosen restrictions. Countries that have ignored super-spreading have risked getting the worst of both worlds: burdensome restrictions that fail to achieve substantial mitigation. The U.K.’s recent decision to limit outdoor gatherings to six people while allowing pubs and bars to remain open is just one of many such examples.”
Could we get back to a much more normal life by focusing on limiting the conditions for super-spreading events, aggressively engaging in cluster-busting, and deploying cheap, rapid mass tests—that is, once we get our case numbers down to low enough numbers to carry out such a strategy? Many places with low community transmission could start immediately. . . .