Replication of viruses in living tissues and cell cultures is a "number game" involving complex biological processes (cell infection, virus replication inside infected cell, cell death, viral degradation) as well as transport processes limiting virus spatial propagation. In epithelial tissues and immovable cell cultures, viral particles are basically transported via Brownian diffusion. Highly non-linear kinetics of viral replication combined with diffusion limitation lead to spatial propagation of infection as a moving front switching from zero to high local viral concentration, the behavior typical of spatially distributed excitable media. We propose a mathematical model of viral infection propagation in cell cultures and tissues under the diffusion limitation. The model is based on the reaction-diffusion equations describing the concentration of uninfected cells, exposed cells (infected but still not shedding the virus), virus-shedding cells, and free virus. We obtain the expressions for the viral replication number, which determines the condition for spatial infection progression, and for the final concentration of uninfected cells. We determine analytically the speed of spatial infection propagation and validate it numerically. We calibrate the model to recent experimental data on SARS-CoV-2 Delta and Omicron variant replication in human nasal epithelial cells. In the case of competition of two virus variants in the same cell culture, the variant with larger individual spreading speed wins the competition and eliminates another one. These results give new insights concerning the emergence of new variants and their spread in the population.
Keywords: autowaves; competition of viral strains; mathematical modeling and analysis; reaction–diffusion systems; viral infection.