Dr Robin Thompson and colleagues carry out ground-breaking research on air travel as a 'natural vaccination'

Dr Robin ThompsonDr Robin Thompson, Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, has been carrying out research into the spread of infectious diseases via air travel that could have ground-breaking consequences for our understanding of pandemics.

Contrary to previous thinking, which predicated that air travel could in the future be one of the leading contributing factors to a deadly pandemic being quickly spread around the globe, Dr Thompson’s research suggests that air travel may in fact spread immunity to deadly strains of illnesses. Dr Thompson described air travel as acting like a ‘natural vaccination’, as it may expose people to less severe strains of an illness, allowing them to build up some immunity to a more dangerous strain, as highly virulent strains of viruses or bacteria often mutate from weaker strains. This may lead to people being less likely to catch the deadly strain and, if they do, to die from it.

His research was picked up by several major news outlets, including the New Scientist, the Daily Mail, Metro, Daily Beast and the Taiwan News.

Summarising his paper on the subject, Dr Thompson said, ‘The high frequency of modern travel has led to concerns about a devastating pandemic, since a lethal pathogen strain could spread worldwide quickly. Many historical pandemics have arisen following pathogen evolution to a more virulent form. However, some pathogen strains invoke immune responses that provide partial cross-immunity against infection with related strains’.

Dr Thompson and his colleagues created a mathematical model of successive outbreaks of two strains: a low virulence strain outbreak followed by a high virulence strain outbreak. The team investigated the impacts of varying travel rates and cross-immunity on the probability of a major outbreak of the high virulence strain occurring, and the size of that outbreak. He said, ‘frequent travel between subpopulations can lead to widespread immunity to the high virulence strain, driven by exposure to the low virulence strain. As a result, major epidemics of the high virulence strain are less likely, and can potentially be smaller, with more connected subpopulations.’

You can read the paper in full on the BioRxiv website.  

Dr Robin Thompson studied Mathematics at Worcester College, Oxford, before gaining a PhD in Mathematical Epidemiology from Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, and has undertaken undergraduate teaching on a number of topics on the Mathematics degree in Oxford. His research involves mathematical modelling of the spread and control of infectious disease outbreaks, including both theoretical work and applications to epidemics in humans, animals and plants.