LSU disease ecologists Bret Elderd and Tad Dallas have been forming multiple epidemic models that display the spread of COVID-19 since earning a one-year $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research Program in March.
The purpose of the Rapid Response Research, or RAPID, grant is to urgently respond to unpredicted events through quick-response research.
“We’re really interested in how the epidemic moves through a population differently step-to-step because people randomly run into each other, people randomly get infected, and understanding how that plays out with the way that the disease is transmitted,” Elderd said.
Both are combining their expertise—Elderd’s research in disease ecology and population and Dallas’ research in population and community ecology of species—to answer important questions regarding the spread of COVID-19 and disease outbreaks in general.
“It really helps out both of us that we have different backgrounds that we can bring together when studying the basic dynamics of COVID-19 as well as the spread of COVID-19,” Elderd said.
“I never dealt with human disease previous to this,” Dallas said. “My background has been focused more on theory, more on wildlife disease. This is definitely a departure from that, but is still very theoretically driven.”
There remain many unknowns that Elderd and Dallas are working to solve through their research.
“Parameters are quite uncertain. Right now part of the effort has been to see the range of parameters like transmission rate or serial interval, or how long between a person getting exposed to showing symptoms and getting infected,” Dallas said. “There’s drastic variation among place and among studies. Even in the same place, there’s many different estimates for those.”
Elderd said that they need more data and testing to outweigh human errors, such as putting the wrong sample in the wrong test tube. He also proposed that testing is randomized within a population.
“If we randomly choose people, we might actually know the prevalence of the disease in the community, and by doing that multiple times, we can get a sequence or a time series of what’s actually going on, whether that be at LSU, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, nationwide, worldwide, anywhere,” Elderd said.
Since delving further into their research, Elderd and Dallas’s perspectives on COVID-19 have changed.
“I grossly underestimated the severity in terms of how fast it would spread just because of my ignorance about the disease since it was so new,” Dallas said. “That’s one thing that has changed a lot in terms of my reading and learning more about it. This is not something we can take lightly by any degree.”
Elderd said he thought the research would be hard, but he didn’t think it would be “as bad.”
“The other thing that shifted is the fact that we had this basic idea of how disease runs through the population that we’ve known about since the 1930s," Elderd said. "It’s been tested again and again. We have science behind this, and we know how best to deal with a lot of these things, and we have recommendations from scientists. Why are we not looking at the science? It would have been a lot better if we had decided to listen to the scientists and not make it a political thing."