People who think the new coronavirus couldn’t take off and cause a SARS-like crisis may have forgotten a phenomenon that was a game-changer during SARS — patients called superspreaders.
At present, this new coronavirus doesn’t seem to spread easily from person to person, a fact which some people use to argue it will not become the next SARS. Some limited human transmission has occurred, but confirmed cases are few and sporadically seen.
However, several experts suggest that superspreaders, which turned SARS into a global outbreak, could do the same with this new virus. That term refers to people who buck the transmission trend with a given bacteria or virus, infecting many more people than is the norm.
Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier gives a succinct answer when asked if a superspreader could profoundly alter the pattern of spread with this emerging virus: “Yes.”
If the virus infected someone who turned out to be a superspreader, and that person sought care in a hospital that wasn’t taking precautions against novel coronavirus infections, this new disease could rapidly begin to resemble SARS.
“I think we would be in big trouble,” says Fouchier, who is with Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam. “There were really only very few cases that caused the trouble during the SARS outbreak.”
So far there have been 16 confirmed infections with the new virus, 10 of which have been fatal. Cases have emerged from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan.
After the dust settled from the whirlwind 2003 event and infectious diseases teams traded their emergency response vests for their research coats, it became apparent that the SARS coronavirus hadn’t spread very well.
In fact, most people who contracted the virus either didn’t infect anyone else, or passed it on to a single person. With that kind of inefficient transmission, an outbreak would normally stall, lacking the momentum to keep itself going.
But during SARS, a select few people inexplicably ended up infecting a dozen, two dozen or more people, turning a disease that might otherwise never have been spotted into a four-month worldwide panic.