This Is What Makes You a Coronavirus Superspreader

Coronavirus superspreaders could be responsible for 80 percent of COVID-19 cases.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we have tried to avoid getting sick both out of concerns for our own health and to avoid spreading the virus to others. But from the beginning, it's been clear that some contagious individuals infect more people than others. While there are superspreader events—activities and gatherings where the conditions are more likely to get a lot of people sick at once—it's also possible that some patients are primed to pass on COVID-19 to a greater number of people. So what does it mean to be a coronavirus superspreader, and how can you know if you are one?

Simply put, a superspreader is a person who will spread their virus to more people than the average individual. The most recent studies of coronavirus indicate that a contagious person could infect five or six others, so anything higher than that may qualify someone for superspreader status.

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During the SARS outbreak in 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that "superspreader" describes people "who have been implicated in spreading the disease to numerous other individuals," but that being a superspreader is "not a recognized medical condition." Generally speaking, a superspreader is a member of the 20 percent of the population responsible for spreading 80 percent of the disease, as explained in an oft-cited 2005 study published in the journal Epidemiology.

A person's superspreader status could have something to do with their body and how it deals with infection, but it's more complicated than that. As Elizabeth McGraw, PhD, professor of entomology and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Pennsylvania State University, writes for The Conversation, "Whether someone is a superspreader or not will depend on some combination of the pathogen, the patient's biology, and their environment or behavior."

woman coughing into her elbow outside while holding coffee

But why do some people spread coronavirus more easily than others? As McGraw goes on to explain, "Some infected individuals might shed more virus into the environment than others if their immune system has trouble subduing the invader." That means that when that person coughs, sneezes, or even talks, they are potentially spreading more viral particles into the air—or directly onto another person.

It's not just about innate characteristics, however. A person can become a coronavirus superspreader simply because they interact with more people than others—if they are traveling while sick and infect multiple passengers on the plane, or if they attend an event at an indoor space with poor ventilation and pass on the virus to everyone else there.

There have been several reported cases of coronavirus superspreaders. One person in Chicago, for example, ended up infecting 15 other people; and early in the pandemic, a patient in Wuhan infected 14 healthcare workers. "We do not know why some people are superspreaders," Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, told The Independent. "The medical question is whether this is just about chance and a particularly unlucky sequence of events or there is something different about this person."

So, how can you know if you are a coronavirus superspreader? The short answer is that you can't—except for after the fact, if contact tracing reveals that you've passed the virus to an unusually high number of people. And at that point, it would be too late. That's why it's important for everyone to behave as though they could be a superspreader, even if they don't have any symptoms. Do your part by continuing to wear a face mask, wash your hands, and maintain social distancing. And for more on how coronavirus spreads, learn The One Way Summer Makes It Easier to Spread Coronavirus.

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