Research highlight

Human behaviour: Mitigating SARS-CoV-2 transmission in university settings

Nature Communications

August 17, 2021

SARS-CoV-2 transmission could be limited in university settings with multiple, layered control interventions, suggests a modelling study in Nature Communications. The findings, based on data from one university in the UK, indicate that combining measures to promote social distancing with reduced face-to-face teaching and self-isolation, could prevent large-scale outbreaks.

As restrictions in the UK were eased in September 2020, before the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines had commenced, many universities re-opened, which posed risks for disease transmission. Universities are potentially high risk transmission settings for COVID-19 because students typically report large numbers of social contacts, live in high-density accommodation, and attend group teaching sessions involving prolonged contact. Young adults are less likely to experience severe forms of the disease, but asymptomatic transmission risks infection of vulnerable groups and potential further spread to the wider community.

Ellen Brooks-Pollock and colleagues performed a mathematical modelling study to investigate how different control interventions, such as reduced face-to-face teaching or testing individually or in combination, could impact infection rates in university students, upon their return to university in September 2020. They used data from a survey measuring the number of contacts a person has, taken prior to the pandemic, to calculate a potential COVID-19 transmission rate for students. This was then combined with anonymised accommodation and faculty data for students at the University of Bristol to simulate how an infection could spread within the student population. The authors found that first-year students were at particularly high risk of transmission because they tend to live in large communal residences. The authors indicate that limiting transmission in communal residences will be important in controlling infections in the wider university setting. They also identified that reducing face-to-face teaching was the most effective individual intervention in mitigating transmission. Brooks-Pollock and co-authors suggest that using combinations of social distancing, online teaching, self-isolation and the potential mass testing of students could be effective measures to control transmission.

The authors conclude that their findings indicate that additional control measures should be considered for university settings. They suggest that the type of modelling they conducted could be a useful tool for guiding intervention in the event of an outbreak in a university setting.

doi: 10.1038/s41467-021-25169-3

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