Whether multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) is less transmissible than drug-susceptible (DS-)TB on a population level is uncertain. Even in the absence of a genetic fitness cost, the transmission potential of individuals with MDR-TB may vary by infectiousness, frequency of contact, or duration of disease. We used a compartmental model to project the progression of MDR-TB epidemics in South Africa and Vietnam under alternative assumptions about the relative transmission efficiency of MDR-TB. Specifically, we considered three scenarios: consistently lower transmission efficiency for MDR-TB than for DS-TB; equal transmission efficiency; and an initial deficit in the transmission efficiency of MDR-TB that closes over time. We calibrated these scenarios with data from drug resistance surveys and projected epidemic trends to 2040. The incidence of MDR-TB was projected to expand in most scenarios, but the degree of expansion depended greatly on the future transmission efficiency of MDR-TB. For example, by 2040, we projected absolute MDR-TB incidence to account for 5% (IQR: 4–9%) of incident TB in South Africa and 14% (IQR: 9–26%) in Vietnam assuming consistently lower MDR-TB transmission efficiency, versus 15% (IQR: 8–27%)and 41% (IQR: 23–62%), respectively, assuming shrinking transmission efficiency deficits. Given future uncertainty, specific responses to halt MDR-TB transmission should be prioritized.
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