What are the underlying transmission patterns of COVID-19 outbreak? An age-specific social contact characterization

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  • Published: 2020-04-17
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COVID-19 has spread to 6 continents. Now is opportune to gain a deeper understanding of what may have happened. The findings can help inform mitigation strategies in the disease-affected countries.

The research team led by Prof. SHI Yong at School of Economics and Management of University of Chinese Academy of Sciences cooperated with research teams at Hong Kong Baptist University and National Institute of Parasitic Diseases of Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention examined an essential factor that characterizes the disease transmission patterns: the interactions among people. We develop a computational model to reveal the interactions in terms of the social contact patterns among the population of different age-groups. Researchers divide a city's population into seven age-groups: 0–6 years old (children); 7–14 (primary and junior high school students); 15–17 (high school students); 18–22 (university students); 23–44 (young/middle-aged people); 45–64 years old (middle-aged/elderly people); and 65 or above (elderly people). They consider four representative settings of social contacts that may cause the disease spread: (1) individual households; (2) schools, including primary/high schools as well as colleges and universities; (3) various physical workplaces; and (4) public places and communities where people can gather, such as stadiums, markets, squares, and organized tours. A contact matrix is computed to describe the contact intensity between different age-groups in each of the four settings. By integrating the four contact matrices with the next-generation matrix, we quantitatively characterize the underlying transmission patterns of COVID-19 among different populations.

The study focuses on 6 representative cities in China: Wuhan, the epicenter of COVID-19 in China, together with Beijing, Tianjin, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Shenzhen, which are five major cities from three key economic zones. The results show that the social contact-based analysis can readily explain the underlying disease transmission patterns as well as the associated risks (including both confirmed and unconfirmed cases). In Wuhan, the age-groups involving relatively intensive contacts in households and public/communities are dispersedly distributed. This can explain why the transmission of COVID-19 in the early stage mainly took place in public places and families in Wuhan. Researchers estimate that Feb. 11, 2020 was the date with the highest transmission risk in Wuhan, which is consistent with the actual peak period of the reported case number (Feb. 4–14). Moreover, the surge in the number of new cases reported on Feb. 12 and 13 in Wuhan can readily be captured using our model, showing its ability in forecasting the potential/unconfirmed cases. Researchers further estimate the disease transmission risks associated with different work resumption plans in these cities after the outbreak. The estimation results are consistent with the actual situations in the cities with relatively lenient policies, such as Beijing, and those with strict policies, such as Shenzhen.

With an in-depth characterization of age-specific social contact-based transmission, the retrospective and prospective situations of the disease outbreak, including the past and future transmission risks, the effectiveness of different interventions, and the disease transmission risks of restoring normal social activities, are computationally analyzed and reasonably explained. The conclusions drawn from the study not only provide a comprehensive explanation of the underlying COVID-19 transmission patterns in China, but more importantly, offer the social contact-based risk analysis methods that can readily be applied to guide intervention planning and operational responses in other countries, so that the impact of COVID-19 pandemic can be strategically mitigated.

The study was published in EClinical Medicine published by The Lancet recently, entitled "What are the underlying transmission patterns of COVID-19 outbreak? An age-specific social contact characterization". The study was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China.