Individual variation in susceptibility or exposure to SARS-CoV-2 lowers the herd immunity threshold

May, 2020


As severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) spreads, the susceptible subpopulation is depleted causing the incidence of new cases to decline. Variation in individual susceptibility or exposure to infection exacerbates this effect. Individuals that are more susceptible or more exposed tend to be infected earlier, depleting the susceptible subpopulation of those who are at higher risk of infection. This selective depletion of susceptibles intensifies the deceleration in incidence. Eventually, susceptible numbers become low enough to prevent epidemic growth or, in other words, the herd immunity threshold (HIT) is reached. Although estimates vary, simple calculations suggest that herd immunity to SARS-CoV-2 requires 60-70% of the population to be immune. By fitting epidemiological models that allow for heterogeneity to SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks across the globe, we show that variation in susceptibility or exposure to infection reduces these estimates. Accurate measurements of heterogeneity are therefore of paramount importance in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.

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