Differences in Covid infection rates may be temporary and down to bad luck

Sam Wood
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How can such similar locations have differing infection rates?

The currently striking difference in COVID-19 infection numbers between Hastings and Thanet, two areas of similar demographics, is puzzling the South East. Professor Martin Michaelis and Dr Mark Wass of the School of Biosciences explain what is known about COVID-19 spread and why the differences may be temporary and down to bad luck:

‘COVID-19 infection rates can differ dramatically within the same region, Hastings and Thanet are a current example in South East England. Despite both being coastal areas with similar demographics, the rate per 100,000 residents is comparatively low in Hastings at about 50 while it is at about 350 roughly seven times higher in Thanet.

‘There is a link between demographics and the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The virus is transmitted via the air and contaminated surfaces. Therefore, living conditions and behaviours have a significant impact on transmission. If people adhere to distancing rules, wear face masks, follow strict hygiene measures, and avoid crowded places and stuffy indoor spaces, they are much less likely to become infected and spread the disease.

‘Personal living circumstances will impact on the extent to which individuals can reduce their infection risk. If people work in close contact with others in crowded work places, their risks of infection are much higher, as illustrated by outbreaks in the meat and the textile industry. Moreover, frontline workers who come into contact with many people, including health professionals, police officers, and teachers are at an increased risk. Similarly, individuals living in crowded conditions will have more difficulty avoiding infection.

‘We must also accept, however, that there is an element of chance in who is becoming infected and where the virus spreads. Nobody is 100% safe. This is only about probabilities, and sometimes unlikely things happen. Hence, living conditions and individual behaviours do not entirely explain the observed virus transmission patterns. In a game of dice, it is unlikely to roll five sixes in a row, but if you play long enough even this unlikely event will eventually happen. Similarly, different infection numbers in similar places may simply be a consequence of bad luck.

‘Additionally, COVID-19 can only spread if introduced in a community. As long as there is no COVID-19 entry, there will be no cases. If there are high infection rates, only very strict measures will break the transmission chain and reduce infection numbers. No society has managed to bring COVID-19 numbers down without severe lockdowns or lockdown-like restrictions. Countries like Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam, Thailand, and Australia, which have controlled COVID-19 spread well, have done so by keeping numbers very low from the beginning and by identifying and fighting local outbreaks early.

‘Taken together, there will always be differences in the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19 due to chance, even between very similar places. We must also consider that we currently only see a snapshot. The lockdown has brought COVID-19 numbers down, and now they are growing at different speeds country-wide. Although we see regional differences now, there is still an overall COVID-19 increase in the country. This suggests that without strong measures, all areas will have similar infection rates to the most badly affected areas. In the absence of containment measures, places like Hastings are simply on their way to a similar or worse situation like places such as Thanet.’

Professor Martin Michaelis and Dr Mark Wass, School of Biosciences

Professor Michaelis and Dr Wass run a joint computational/ wet laboratory.  Dr Wass is a computational biologist with expertise in structural biology and big data analysis. Prof Michaelis’ research is focused on the identification and investigation of drugs and their mechanisms of action, with a focus on cancer and viruses. With regard to viruses, Prof Michaelis and Dr Wass work on virus-host cell interactions and antiviral drug targets. In the cancer field, they investigate drug resistance in cancer. In collaboration with Professor Jindrich Cinatl (Goethe-University, Frankfurt am Main), they manage and develop the Resistant Cancer Cell Line (RCCL) Collection, a unique collection of 2,000 cancer cell lines with acquired resistance to anti-cancer drugs. They are also interested in meta-research that investigates research practices in the life sciences.

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