Creative rendering of RSV, SARS-CoV-2, and flu, three respiratory viruses that ciruclated — and interacted in society — in 2022 and 2023 (image: NIAID)

Most people think of a disease outbreak when they hear the word “contagion.” But it’s a concept that extends beyond pathogens. It could be an infectious disease, a fad, an online meme, or even a positive behavior in a population.

“From the mathematical perspective, a contagion is just a thing that spreads,” says Laurent Hébert-Dufresne, a former SFI Postdoctoral Fellow, now an associate professor in computer science at the University of Vermont.

April 19–21, Hébert-Dufresne and Juniper Lovato, who was a former director of education at SFI, now the director of partnerships and programs at the University of Vermont’s Complex Systems Center, convenes a workshop titled “Dynamics of Interacting Contagions.” At the three-day event, around 25 experts from diverse fields, such as psychology and vaccine science, will make presentations and engage in brainstorming sessions to explore the science behind the complex interplay of contagions. SFI Professors Mirta Galesic and Sidney Redner are also part of the organizing team.

Many disciplines use the paradigm that “one pathogen equals one contagion” to study how things spread. However, this framework fails to capture phenomena such as outbreaks and misinformation. For example, multiple pathogens are responsible for making people sick during a flu season, explains Hébert-Dufresne. Similarly, a lot is going on with social contagions, too. Lovato says that several factors determine the impact of a rumor, such as its content and people’s ability to either debunk or get duped by it. The organizers hope the discussions at the event will yield a scientific publication, among other outcomes.

While the pandemic did not inspire the workshop — it was supposed to be held in 2020 and was postponed because of the public health emergency — Lovato believes understanding how different contagions interact can help us untangle large-scale outbreaks. For example, anti-vaccination sentiments can influence the rate of disease spread during these crises.

Currently, researchers don’t fully understand the mechanisms of contagion spread. “If we want to study a world where there are hundreds of millions of pieces of misinformation online and hundreds of pathogens that pose a danger in the real world, we just don’t have the right tools to do it,” Hébert-Dufresne says. 

The workshop will be a starting point for discussing what these research tools could look like in the future. “I’m pretty confident we can build the framework that’s needed to study interactions between contagions in a more systematic way,” says Hébert-Dufresne. “And I think we have the right group to do it.” 

Read more about the workshop, Dynamics of Interacting Contagions