Science Writing Competition 2021 – 1st Place

by Anjali Wijnhoven, MSc Student, School of Public Health

The Dangers of Superspreading – A Conversation with a 5-Year Old

There I am, babysitting 5-year old Thomas, when suddenly the ever-dreaded question comes up: “What do you do at work?” I would have expected this from relatives, friends even, but not from this little boy who I am trying to get to sleep. I guess it’s his way to stay up a little longer. Ah well, since this is the most interest anyone has shown in my work for a while, I decide to go for it.

Me: “Remember that virus that everyone has been talking about? The one that causes COVID?”

He: “Yes, I made a drawing for the NHS! It had rainbows, and unicorns, and–“

Me: “Yes, yes, so remember when the government told everyone to stay at home?”

He, getting excited: “And I didn’t have to go to school for weeks.” Then, more disappointed: “But they gave me lots of homework, yuck, and mummy and daddy were always on their computer, and they got really annoyed every time I sang the Phineas and Ferb song.”

Me: “Erm, yes, that’s it. Well, the government did that to prevent the virus from spreading. They thought that everyone could spread it equally.”

Me: “But after a few months, scientists did a lot of calculations on their computers and realised that some people spread the virus more than others¹. They called those people superspreaders.”

He, indignant: “I thought scientists did experiments with explosions and stuff.”

Me, under my breath: “Hmm, not so different from relatives after all…”

Me: “Well no, we can’t all do explosions, but what I do is cool too! So these scientists found that just a few people cause most of the virus transmissions¹. If only they could figure out how to stop this superspreading from happening…”

Thomas put on an expression like he was the next Sherlock Holmes: “I know how! We should lock those people up and then we can all go outside again!”

Me: “Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. In theory, everybody could be a superspreader, because we could all cause a superspreading event. For instance, if I were infected and went to see a lot of friends indoors, that could be a superspreading event too. Would you lock me up for that?”

He: “Yes.”

Me, sighing: “That wouldn’t solve the problem. Instead, the government needs to know which measures prevent superspreading events². That is where my job comes in. I am trying to find out which measures work best, by looking at the virus’ family tree.”

He, starting to yawn: “Like finding the virus’ grandma and grandpa?”

Me: “Yes! By doing this, I can see how it spread through countries and find the superspreading events³. Then I can compare how the virus spread in countries with different COVID-measures. I hope to find out which measures caused the least superspreading to occur. That is cool, right?!”


Me: “Right?!” Still nothing.

He was fast asleep. I guess viral phylodynamics are an acquired taste.