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Coronavirus Diamond Princess Cruise Ship Fiasco Points to Possible ‘Super-Spreader’

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Amid a deluge of fresh details about a possible “super-spreader” of the new, deadly coronavirus, public health experts questioned whether the same kind of ultra-contagious patient may be responsible for the largest outbreak outside China: a cruise ship off the coast of Japan.

The potential existence of coronavirus super-spreaders, unusual in any epidemic, also bolstered a lingering suspicion by some public health experts that people who have not yet experienced symptoms can spread the fatal disease.

The global death toll for the novel 2019 coronavirus surpassed 1,000 on Monday, with at least 42,500 confirmed cases. The vast majority of infections—and all but one death—have occurred in mainland China or Hong Kong, while the number of people infected in the United States reached 13 after a new case was confirmed in San Diego on Monday.

But international attention has recently homed in on the case of a 53-year-old British man deemed a “super-spreader,” or a person who transmits the virus more efficiently than average. In this case, the individual appears to have passed the disease to at least 11 people in three countries during a trip from Singapore to France to Switzerland to England.

“This British super-spreader had no symptoms during his period of transmission,” said Dr. Adrian Hyzler, the chief medical officer for Healix International, which provides medical information to organizations whose clients travel internationally. “He has really set in motion a web of infections.”

In disease outbreak analysis, officials measure the transmission of an infection by looking at the “reproduction number” or “R0.” Essentially, a R0 of 1 means the average person who gets a disease will transmit it to one other person; an R0 of 2 means the average person with the disease will transmit it to two other people. For the novel 2019 coronavirus, the World Health Organization has estimated an R0 between 1.4 to 2.5, while a group of Chinese doctors calculated it to be between 3.3 and 5.47 in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases last month.

“The aim through public health measures is to get the R0 less than 1, which means that we can contain the virus,” said Hyzler. A super-spreader is anyone who infects a higher number of people than the R0.

Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and an expert on U.S. readiness for pandemics, told Headline News that the possible existence of super-spreaders in the coronavirus epidemic is “very unusual.”

“It means someone is excreting the virus more much efficiently,” Redlener said. “When a person who is a super-spreader coughs, a lot more virus is excreted, and the spread is much more rabid just because more people get sick who come in contact with a super-spreader.”

So far, in the United States, even among those who have transmitted the virus person-to-person, only spouses have been confirmed to have the virus. But a super-spreader represents a whole other level of risk, experts said.

“In a non super-spreader, if we find that there’s 20 people that now need to be checked, with a super-spreader it might be multiples of that: 40 or 60 people,” Redlener told Headline News on Tuesday. “We just don’t know how many super-spreaders there are out there, so it makes tracking incredibly difficult.”

Public health authorities do not know why some people are super-spreaders and others are not, despite the phenomenon recurring during various outbreaks over the years.

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