Unraveling the hurdles of a large Covid-19 epidemiological investigation by viral genomics

Regina Sá, Joana Isidro, Vítor Borges, Sílvia Duarte, Luís Vieira, João P Gomes, Sofia Tedim, Judite Matias, Andreia Leite

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COVID-19 local outbreak response relies on subjective information to reconstruct transmission chains. We assessed the concordance between epidemiologically linked cases and viral genetic profiles, in the Baixo Vouga Region (Portugal), from March to June 2020. A total of 1925 COVID-19 cases were identified, with 1143 being assigned to 154 epiclusters. Viral genomic data was available for 128 cases. Public health authorities identified two large epiclusters (280 and 101 cases each) with a central role on the spread of the disease. Still, the genomic data revealed that each epicluster included two distinct SARS-CoV-2 genetic profiles and thus more than one transmission network. We were able to show that the initial transmission dynamics reconstruction was most likely accurate, but the increasing dimension of the epiclusters and its extension to densely populated settings (healthcare and nursing home settings) triggered the misidentification of links. Genomics was also key to resolve some sporadic cases and misidentified direction of transmission. The epidemiological investigation showed a sensitivity of 70%-86% to detect transmission chains. This study contributes to the understanding of the hurdles and caveats associated with the epidemiological investigation of hundreds of community cases in the context of a massive outbreak caused by a highly transmissible and new respiratory virus.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)64-74
Number of pages11
JournalJournal Of Infection
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2022


  • COVID-19/epidemiology
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Genome, Viral
  • Genomics
  • Humans
  • SARS-CoV-2/genetics


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