There are no equal opportunity infectors: Epidemiological modelers must rethink our approach to inequality in infection risk

Jon Zelner, Nina B. Masters, Ramya Naraharisetti, Sanyu A. Mojola, Merlin Chowkwanyun, Ryan Malosh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Mathematical models have come to play a key role in global pandemic preparedness and outbreak response: helping to plan for disease burden, hospital capacity, and inform non-pharmaceutical interventions. Such models have played a pivotal role in the COVID-19 pandemic, with transmission models-and, by consequence, modelers-guiding global, national, and local responses to SARS-CoV-2. However, these models have largely not accounted for the social and structural factors, which lead to socioeconomic, racial, and geographic health disparities. In this piece, we raise and attempt to clarify several questions relating to this important gap in the research and practice of infectious disease modeling: Why do epidemiologic models of emerging infections typically ignore known structural drivers of disparate health outcomes? What have been the consequences of a framework focused primarily on aggregate outcomes on infection equity? What should be done to develop a more holistic approach to modeling-based decision-making during pandemics? In this review, we evaluate potential historical and political explanations for the exclusion of drivers of disparity in infectious disease models for emerging infections, which have often been characterized as “equal opportunity infectors” despite ample evidence to the contrary. We look to examples from other disease systems (HIV, STIs) and successes in including social inequity in models of acute infection transmission as a blueprint for how social connections, environmental, and structural factors can be integrated into a coherent, rigorous, and interpretable modeling framework. We conclude by outlining principles to guide modeling of emerging infections in ways that represent the causes of inequity in infection as central rather than peripheral mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1009795
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Genetics
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Molecular Biology
  • Ecology
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics
  • Modeling and Simulation


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