Primary case inference in viral outbreaks through analysis of intra-host variant population.


Investigation of outbreaks to identify the primary case is crucial for the interruption and prevention of transmission of infectious diseases. These individuals may have a higher risk of participating in near future transmission events when compared to the other patients in the outbreak, so directing more transmission prevention resources towards these individuals is a priority. Although the genetic characterization of intra-host viral populations can aid the identification of transmission clusters, it is not trivial to determine the directionality of transmissions during outbreaks, owing to complexity of viral evolution. Here, we present a new computational framework, PYCIVO: primary case inference in viral outbreaks. This framework expands upon our earlier work in development of QUENTIN, which builds a probabilistic disease transmission tree based on simulation of evolution of intra-host hepatitis C virus (HCV) variants between cases involved in direct transmission during an outbreak. PYCIVO improves upon QUENTIN by also adding a custom heterogeneity index and identifying the scenario when the primary case may have not been sampled.

PYCIVO improves upon QUENTIN by also implementing a custom heterogeneity index which empowers PYCIVO to make the important 'No primary case' prediction. One or more samples, possibly including the primary case, may have not been sampled, and this designation is meant to account for these scenarios.

These approaches were validated using a set of 105 sequence samples from 11 distinct HCV transmission clusters identified during outbreak investigations, in which the primary case was epidemiologically verified. Both models can detect the correct primary case in 9 out of 11 transmission clusters (81.8%). However, while QUENTIN issues erroneous predictions on the remaining 2 transmission clusters, PYCIVO issues a null output for these clusters, giving it an effective prediction accuracy of 100%. To further evaluate accuracy of the inference, we created 10 modified transmission clusters in which the primary case had been removed. In this scenario, PYCIVO was able to correctly identify that there was no primary case in 8/10 (80%) of these modified clusters. This model was validated with HCV; however, this approach may be applicable to other microbial pathogens.

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