The coronavirus has traveled the globe, basically infecting one person at a time. Some infected people might not spread the virus, while others are what epidemiologist call “superspreaders”. And those superspreaders seem to be crucial to the disease’s transmission.
WHAT IS A SUPERSPREADER ?
Early in the outbreak, researchers established that a person carrying COVID-19 would, on average, infect another 1 or 2 to 3 people. However, most recent studies are showing that this number may actually be higher. As early as January, one single patient in Wuhan China was reported to have infected 14 health workers. That qualifies him as a “superspreader”: someone responsible for infecting a large number of other people. Several similar cases of single superspreaders around the world were recorded. Knowing this, the existence of superspreaders can accelerate the rate of new infections and expand the geographic distribution of the disease.
WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT SUPERSPREADERS ?
Whether someone is a superspreader or not depends on some combination of the pathogen itself, the patient’s biology, his environment and behavior. If your immune system has trouble subduing the invader, you may shed more virus into the environment. Also, some people may start as asymptomatic, and thus inadvertently infecting more people in that pre-symptomatic phase.
Also, a person’s behavior, movement pattern and degree of contact with other will play a role, evidently. An infected shopkeeper or supermarket employee might come in contact with a large number of people and goods each day, someone participating in a public protest – where it is challenging to keep social distance, and where people raise their voices or cough from tear gas – are conducive to superspreading.
THE ROLE OF SUPERSPREADERS IN THE OUTBREAK
Studies around the world have shown that only 20% of all those infected were responsible for 80% of all local transmissions. Importantly, studies also showed that these transmissions were associated with people who had more social contacts, beyond just family members.
The good news is, with the right control practices, hygiene, quarantine and social distancing, we can really slow the transmission rate and halt the pandemic.