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

medRxiv. 2022 Feb 14;2020.04.27.20081893. doi: 10.1101/2020.04.27.20081893. Preprint


Individual variation in susceptibility and exposure is subject to selection by natural infection, accelerating the acquisition of immunity, and reducing herd immunity thresholds and epidemic final sizes. This is a manifestation of a wider population phenomenon known as "frailty variation". Despite theoretical understanding, public health policies continue to be guided by mathematical models that leave out considerable variation and as a result inflate projected disease burdens and overestimate the impact of interventions. Here we focus on trajectories of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in England and Scotland until November 2021. We fit models to series of daily deaths and infer relevant epidemiological parameters, including coefficients of variation and effects of non-pharmaceutical interventions which we find in agreement with independent empirical estimates based on contact surveys. Our estimates are robust to whether the analysed data series encompass one or two pandemic waves and enable projections compatible with subsequent dynamics. We conclude that vaccination programmes may have contributed modestly to the acquisition of herd immunity in populations with high levels of pre-existing naturally acquired immunity, while being critical to protect vulnerable individuals from severe outcomes as the virus becomes endemic.

Highlights: Variation in susceptibility/exposure responds to selection by natural infectionSelection on susceptibility/exposure flattens epidemic curvesModels with incomplete heterogeneity overestimate intervention impactsIndividual variation lowered the natural herd immunity threshold for SARS-CoV-2.

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  • Preprint