1. Places where people work closely together, or shout or sing, have higher risks of infection.
2. Indoors are worse than outdoors.
3. SARS-CoV-2 appears to transmit mostly through droplets, but it does occasionally spread through finer aerosols that can stay suspended in the air, enabling one person to infect many.
4. Personal behaviour: Having many social contacts or not washing your hands makes you more likely to pass on the virus.
By Kai Kupferschmidt
May. 19, 2020 , 5:25 PM
Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
…Sometimes a single person infects dozens of people, whereas other clusters unfold across several generations of spread, in multiple venues.
Other infectious diseases also spread in clusters, and with close to 5 million reported COVID-19 cases worldwide, some big outbreaks were to be expected. But SARS-CoV-2, like two of its cousins, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), seems especially prone to attacking groups of tightly connected people while sparing others. It’s an encouraging finding, scientists say, because it suggests that restricting gatherings where superspreading is likely to occur will have a major impact on transmission, and that other restrictions—on outdoor activity, for example—might be eased.
Most of the discussion around the spread of SARS-CoV-2 has concentrated on the average number of new infections caused by each patient. Without social distancing, this reproduction number (R) is about three. But in real life, some people infect many others and others don’t spread the disease at all. In fact, the latter is the norm, Lloyd-Smith says: “The consistent pattern is that the most common number is zero. Most people do not transmit.”
That’s why in addition to R, scientists use a value called the dispersion factor (k), which describes how much a disease clusters. The lower k is, the more transmission comes from a small number of people. In a seminal 2005 Nature paper, Lloyd-Smith and co-authors estimated that SARS—in which superspreading played a major role—had a k of 0.16. The estimated k for MERS, which emerged in 2012, is about 0.25. In the flu pandemic of 1918, in contrast, the value was about one, indicating that clusters played less of a role.
Why coronaviruses cluster so much more than other pathogens is “a really interesting open scientific question,” says Christophe Fraser of the University of Oxford, who has studied superspreading in Ebola and HIV. Their mode of transmission may be one factor. SARS-CoV-2 appears to transmit mostly through droplets, but it does occasionally spread through finer aerosols that can stay suspended in the air, enabling one person to infect many. Most published large transmission clusters “seem to implicate aerosol transmission,” Fraser says.
Individual patients’ characteristics play a role as well. Some people shed far more virus, and for a longer period of time, than others, perhaps because of differences in their immune system or the distribution of virus receptors in their body. A 2019 study of healthy people showed some breathe out many more particles than others when they talk. (The volume at which they spoke explained some of the variation.) Singing may release more virus than speaking, which could help explain the choir outbreaks. People’s behavior also plays a role. Having many social contacts or not washing your hands makes you more likely to pass on the virus.
The factor scientists are closest to understanding is where COVID-19 clusters are likely to occur. “Clearly there is a much higher risk in enclosed spaces than outside,” Althaus says. Researchers in China studying the spread of the coronavirus outside Hubei province—ground zero for the pandemic—identified 318 clusters of three or more cases between 4 January and 11 February, only one of which originated outdoors. A study in Japan found that the risk of infection indoors is almost 19 times higher than outdoors. (Japan, which was hit early but has kept the epidemic under control, has built its COVID-19 strategy explicitly around avoiding clusters, advising citizens to avoid closed spaces and crowded conditions.)
Some situations may be particularly risky. Meatpacking plants are likely vulnerable because many people work closely together in spaces where low temperature helps the virus survive. But it may also be relevant that they tend to be loud places, Knight says. The report about the choir in Washington made her realize that one thing links numerous clusters: They happened in places where people shout or sing.
Timing also plays a role. Emerging evidence suggests COVID-19 patients are most infectious for a short period of time. Entering a high-risk setting in that period may touch off a superspreading event, Kucharski says; “Two days later, that person could behave in the same way and you wouldn’t see the same outcome.”
Kai is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine based in Berlin, Germany. He is the author of a book about the color blue, published in 2019.