Superspreading of airborne pathogens in a heterogeneous world

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Epidemics are regularly associated with reports of superspreading: single individuals infecting many others. How do we determine if such events are due to people inherently being biological superspreaders or simply due to random chance? We present an analytically solvable model for airborne diseases which reveal the spreading statistics of epidemics in socio-spatial heterogeneous spaces and provide a baseline to which data may be compared. In contrast to classical SIR models, we explicitly model social events where airborne pathogen transmission allows a single individual to infect many simultaneously, a key feature that generates distinctive output statistics. We find that diseases that have a short duration of high infectiousness can give extreme statistics such as 20% infecting more than 80%, depending on the socio-spatial heterogeneity. Quantifying this by a distribution over sizes of social gatherings, tracking data of social proximity for university students suggest that this can be a approximated by a power law. Finally, we study mitigation efforts applied to our model. We find that the effect of banning large gatherings works equally well for diseases with any duration of infectiousness, but depends strongly on socio-spatial heterogeneity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number11191
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 27 May 2021

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