Bayesian reconstruction of transmission within outbreaks using genomic variants

De Maio, N., Worby, C. J., Wilson, D. J. and N. Stoesser (2018)
PLoS Computational Biology 14: e1006117. (preprint pdf)

Pathogen genome sequencing can reveal details of transmission histories and is a powerful tool in the fight against infectious disease. In particular, within-host pathogen genomic variants identified through heterozygous nucleotide base calls are a potential source of information to identify linked cases and infer direction and time of transmission. However, using such data effectively to model disease transmission presents a number of challenges, including differentiating genuine variants from those observed due to sequencing error, as well as the specification of a realistic model for within-host pathogen population dynamics. Here we propose a new Bayesian approach to transmission inference that explicitly models evolution of pathogen populations in an outbreak, transmission (including transmission bottlenecks), and sequencing error. Our approach enables the inference of host-to-host transmission from pathogen sequencing data and epidemiological data. By assuming that genomic variants are unlinked, our method does not require the computationally intensive and unreliable reconstruction of individual haplotypes. Using simulations we show that our method is robust in most scenarios and can accurately infer transmission events by efficiently combining information from genetic and epidemiological sources; thanks to its realistic model of pathogen evolution and the inclusion of epidemiological data, our method is also more accurate than existing approaches. The software implementing our method is distributed as an open source package ( for the phylogenetic software BEAST2. We apply our method to reconstruct transmission history at the early stages of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, showcasing the power of within-host genomic variants to reconstruct transmission events.