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Superspreaders: India’s COVID-19 culprit?

A vast study has taken place analysing the transmission patterns for COVID-19 in India. In the largest study on the disease in India so far, researchers tested more than a half-million contacts of 85,000 cases to examine transmission patterns with the hopes of finding more effective means of curbing the progression of the disease through the country.

Stock Photo - Inscription COVID-19 on blue background. World Health Organization WHO introduced new official name for Coronavirus disease named COVID-19. COVID-19 outbreak concept. Image credit: nunataki / 123rf
Image credit: nunataki / 123rf

The primary culprits of the spread of the disease are referred to as “superspreaders”. These individuals have shown the capacity to spread the disease to high numbers of other individuals, typically through exposure to larger contact networks and limited capacity for social distancing and isolation.

Two major groups were revealed through the study. Firstly, children were shown to be a major cause of the spread of COVID-19. This is not unexpected and has been observed in countries across the globe. Children reentering the education system following lockdown are exposed to potentially hundreds of other children. Any one child could be infected and rapidly spread the disease across a large network of children. Following this, children return to their households and in turn infect their family members. 

This situation is all but impossible to rectify. Children, particularly those of a young age, are notoriously difficult to control. The pandemic does not discriminate based on age, and a child is just as capable of spreading COVID-19 as an adult. However, explaining this situation to a child who is, for example, below the age of five, is a difficult matter. Basic hygiene and mask-wearing measures could help in reducing spread. However, entirely eliminating the spread of the disease among children may be unachievable.

The second group noted as superspreaders was identified in two southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh — referring to those undertaking a long bus or train ride. In many instances, these individuals are sat, or stood next to each other for hours at a time, presenting ample opportunity for infection.  

The study noted that the chance of passing on COVID-19 among this group was eighty percent for passengers sitting next to an infected person on a bus or train for more than six hours without a mask. By comparison, there was only a nine percent chance of an infected person giving the virus to another member of their household. The chances of a person passing on the virus in a hospital or clinic was 1.2 percent and just 2.6 percent for interactions in the general community.

The spread of the disease may be far worse than currently assumed. Following on from a serological survey assessing antibody levels against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 nationwide, one of the country’s leading medical agencies weighed in on the situation. More than sixty million people in India –  ten times the official figure – could have contracted the novel coronavirus, claimed the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on September 29th.

Information such as the rate at which the disease is spreading among certain groups will be vital moving forward. Such data will help to inform policy decisions that could make a considerable difference in how India handles the pandemic. With public transport forming such a notable risk, the situation with migrant workers and day labourers travelling once the economy begins to reignite could be catastrophic. India’s poorest, therefore, could be at an elevated risk should nothing be done to address this.

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