The report that a British businessman may have carried the coronavirus to England, France and Spain has raised concerns about ‘super spreaders’ — infected individuals who travel widely across continents and mingle with large groups of people within enclosed spaces. The businessman flew multiple times and attended industry events.
Usually, super spreaders are asymptomatic themselves, and yet the disease in their bodies has progressed to the point of being communicable.
Most infections pass from the initial sufferer to people they deal with day to day, such as family members or co-workers. But super spreaders have been factors in almost every worldwide outbreak of disease. They are especially dangerous, not only because of the sheer numbers of people they infect, but because they can unwittingly carry pathogens from an isolated area to totally new parts of the globe.
Back in the 1980s, some epidemiologists searched relentlessly for a single person they dubbed ‘patient zero,' the one who carried AIDS out of Haiti. For years it was believed a gregarious Canadian flight attendant was almost solely responsible for spreading the HIV virus that causes AIDS into gay communities across North America. That reasoning has since been debunked, and it’s now thought multiple super spreaders were circulating at the start of the AIDS epidemic, before health officials realized what they were dealing with.
More recently, in 2015, a single patient at a crowded South Korean emergency room is thought to have spread the highly fatal MERS virus to an astounding 80 people.
Here in the United States, health officials believe super spreaders are the source of measles outbreaks in some communities.
Health officials are trying to prevent super spreaders from unintentionally creating medical mayhem with coronavirus. Incoming passengers at major international airports in America are being screened for fevers or other signs of illness. China has established the largest quarantine in recorded history — about 50 million people in and around Wuhan are on lockdown. Not to mention the cruise ships drifting out of sea, some of which have been refused the ability to dock because passengers on board are sick.
Epidemiologists do a remarkable job tracking something that no one can actually see. But it is a public health hazard that is incredibly challenging to contain.
As one expert put it, “If you miss even one case, and that person turns out to be a super spreader, then there’s the potential to spark off another train of transmissions.”