Superspreading occasions profoundly alter the course of an epidemic

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A large research team with members from various institutions in and around Boston has found evidence that widespread events can fundamentally change the course of an epidemic. In their article published in the journal Science, the group describes their genomic study of the early days of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in and around Boston.

As the global pandemic continues to affect billions of people around the world, scientists have learned more about it and about epidemics in general. A well-known aspect of the current pandemic has been the importance of widespread events where a few people infect many other people in a single event such as a rock concert, political rally, or motorcycle festival. In this new effort, researchers examined the Boston Superspreader events in the early days of the pandemic and the impact they had on their course.

The work included collecting and analyzing data on confirmed COVID-19 infections in and around Boston from early February. Each of the samples was subjected to genetic analysis to determine its uniqueness. The team generated 778 virus genomes and made phylogenetic maps around them.

They identified 122 suspected imports of the virus into Massachusetts. More importantly, they were able to track the virus’s path through two major superspreader events – a Biogen meeting at the Boston Marriot Long Wharf Hotel and another at a nursing education center. They found that the Biogen meeting resulted in 100 infections, and since the attendees were non-state, they spread the virus to 29 states upon returning home. When they looked at the bigger picture, they found that the virus strain of the Biogen superspreader event now accounts for approximately 1.6 percent of all infections in the United States. They also found that the care center’s superspreader event in Boston and its suburbs resulted in a significant number of deaths

The researchers conclude that superspreader events play an important role in the progression of a pandemic, suggesting that reducing such events would dramatically slow its progress.

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More information:
Jacob E. Lemieux et al. SARS-CoV-2 phylogenetic analysis in Boston reveals the effects of widespread events, Science (2020). DOI: 10.1126 / science.abe3261

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