In Depth

Coronavirus: super spreaders and the risk in the UK

Health officials urged to disclose movements of British businessman believed to have contracted disease in Singapore

A British man who contracted the new coronavirus in Singapore has been linked to at least seven other confirmed cases in the UK, Spain and France - sparking fears that he may be a “super spreader” of the infection.

The Telegraph reports that UK health officials are refusing to release “details of the movements” of the unnamed businessman, who is thought to have infected people including five fellow Britons at a French ski resort before falling ill five days after returning home to Brighton.

All that is known about his movements in the days before he began showing symptoms is that “he spent two hours in a local pub the night before finally succumbing”, says the newspaper. However, easyJet has confirmed that the man took a flight from Geneva to Gatwick Airport on 28 January. 

The airline said Public Health England is contacting all other passengers who were sitting near him on flight EZS8481.

What is a super spreader? 

Researchers estimate that a person carrying the coronavirus will, on average, infect approximately 2.6 people, says Elizabeth McGraw, director of Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, in an article on The Conversation.

But recent reports from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak, also cite a case of a single patient who infected 14 healthcare workers. “That qualifies him as a super spreader: someone who is responsible for infecting an especially large number of other people,” writes McGraw.

What makes someone a so-called super spreader depends “on some combination of the pathogen and the patient’s biology and their environment or behaviour at the given time”, she explains. 

Super spreaders are like “an infectious grenade” and have unwittingly worsened outbreaks of diseases ranging from Ebola to tuberculosis, adds Wired

“Decades ago, a team of epidemiologists at the University of Oxford analysed patterns in the spread of malaria, HIV, and other diseases, and found that 20% of infected people spread 80% of infections, an estimation that became known as the 20-80 rule,” the science news site reports. 

How great is the coronavirus risk in the UK?

The virus has killed 910 people globally, the vast majority in mainland China, and infected more than 40,600 people. At least 3,550 people are known to have recovered already and nearly 30,000 of those infected are said to have a “mild condition”.

A total of eight cases have been confirmed in the UK, the BBC reports.

The UK government today declared coronavirus a “serious and imminent threat” to public health, and has announced new powers to fight the spread of the infection, including the forcible quarantine of people who may be carriers.

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According to BBC health editor Hugh Pym, Whitehall sources say the regulations need to be tightened to enforce quarantining of people back from Wuhan, who are being contained in Milton Keynes and the Wirral. 

“Tackling the coronavirus threat has taken the Government into uncharted territory,” says Pym. “Quarantining hundreds of British citizens for two weeks has never been done on this scale in modern times.”

The official threat level in the UK remains “moderate”.

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