A Hierarchical Framework for Assessing Transmission Causality of Respiratory Viruses
Jefferson T., Heneghan CJ., Spencer E., Brassey J., Plüddemann A., Onakpoya I., Evans D., Conly J.
Systematic reviews of 591 primary studies of the modes of transmission for SARS-CoV-2 show significant methodological shortcomings and heterogeneity in the design, conduct, testing, and reporting of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. While this is partly understandable at the outset of a pandemic, evidence rules of proof for assessing the transmission of this virus are needed for present and future pandemics of viral respiratory pathogens. We review the history of causality assessment related to microbial etiologies with a focus on respiratory viruses and suggest a hierarchy of evidence to integrate clinical, epidemiologic, molecular, and laboratory perspectives on transmission. The hierarchy, if applied to future studies, should narrow the uncertainty over the twin concepts of causality and transmission of human respiratory viruses. We attempt to address the translational gap between the current research evidence and the assessment of causality in the transmission of respiratory viruses with a focus on SARS-CoV-2. Experimentation, consistency, and independent replication of research alongside our proposed framework provide a chain of evidence that can reduce the uncertainty over the transmission of respiratory viruses and increase the level of confidence in specific modes of transmission, informing the measures that should be undertaken to prevent transmission.