The pandemic war is fought on many fronts. Currently, schooling is hotly debated. Kids need their education, parents need their lives back, and teachers feel an urgent necessity to not die from something they caught at work. Meanwhile, they can’t even get on the vaccination list. Of course, situations are not parallel everywhere. Different states handle things in their own ways, as in Florida and Louisiana, where high school wrestling programs have produced superspreader events.
Meanwhile, researchers everywhere wrestle with the questions of who is most at risk, and who needs the most protection, and most of all, what keeps one individual from becoming infected while others succumb? Should we be looking at age or race, or weather, or nutritional supplements like Vitamin D and zinc, or what?
In late September, journalist Zeynep Tufeckci, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, wrote out some basic principles that are detailed but not hard to grasp for The Atlantic. The title of the piece, “This Overlooked Variable Is the Key to the Pandemic,” refers to a way of understanding that would help to answer questions, including the foundations of current controversies, and rein in the spread of COVID-19 and its brethren.
Tufeckci speaks of the tendency of any disease to fall into one of two categories, deterministic or stochastic. Roughly, this translates to linear or random. Tufeckci wrote,
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.
He recalls that the dreaded superspreader events all have in common: a bunch of people, indoors, with poor ventilation, unmasked. (In many cases, another shared affinity is that the people talk loudly and/or sing.) For such an occurrence, a number of things need to happen at the same time. Because if, for instance, the world’s most contagious patient were alone on an ice floe, there would be no superspreader event. That patient’s presence is a “necessary condition,” because, without that viral load, nothing would happen.
But that person’s presence alone is not a “sufficient condition” because without some other people there as targets, no spread can take place. They too are a necessary condition, and the more necessary conditions that come together in one environment, the more likely it is that something bad will happen. Also, aside from those items and several others the author mentions, he says,
We don’t even know if there are more factors yet to be discovered that influence super-spreading.
But we do know enough to avoid assembling as unmasked, poorly ventilated indoor crowds!
This virus is what scientists call an overdispersed pathogen, “meaning that it tends to spread in clusters.” According to recent studies, most infected people probably don’t infect anyone else. Those who do are real overachievers, like a woman in Daegu, South Korea, who unknowingly passed the disease along to over 5,000 fellow church members. Tufeckci wrote,
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… 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…
But what we have not figured out is, “Why Daegu in February and not Seoul, despite the two cities being in the same country, under the same government, people, weather, and more?”
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “This Overlooked Variable Is the Key to the Pandemic,” TheAtlantic.com, 09/30/20
Image by Mark Lundy/CC BY-ND 2.0