Inference of person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 reveals hidden super-spreading events during the early outbreak phase

Nat Commun. 2020 Oct 6;11(1):5006. doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-18836-4.


Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was first identified in late 2019 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China and spread globally in months, sparking worldwide concern. However, it is unclear whether super-spreading events occurred during the early outbreak phase, as has been observed for other emerging viruses. Here, we analyse 208 publicly available SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences collected during the early outbreak phase. We combine phylogenetic analysis with Bayesian inference under an epidemiological model to trace person-to-person transmission. The dispersion parameter of the offspring distribution in the inferred transmission chain was estimated to be 0.23 (95% CI: 0.13-0.38), indicating there are individuals who directly infected a disproportionately large number of people. Our results showed that super-spreading events played an important role in the early stage of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bayes Theorem
  • Betacoronavirus / classification
  • Betacoronavirus / genetics
  • COVID-19
  • China / epidemiology
  • Coronavirus Infections / epidemiology
  • Coronavirus Infections / transmission*
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology
  • Disease Outbreaks*
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • Phylogeny
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology
  • Pneumonia, Viral / transmission*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / virology
  • SARS-CoV-2