They call medical frontliners the superheroes of today. Day in and day out, they toil endlessly without much compensation for their verily valiant effort, tired to the bone. But the numbers never drop. Perhaps this society they liken to in the stories also has real-life villains who are responsible for this chaos. Whereas the heroes exhaust their whole bodies trying to curb the pandemic, the villains parade casually while worsening the situation—albeit unknowingly. Superspreaders, they are called, but in no way are they heroic like superheroes.
According to a 2019 study by William Ristenpart, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Davis, there are some people who naturally emit more aerosols than normal due to some sort of physiological reason. Aerosols are tiny respiratory droplets which have the capacity to infect the surroundings with a virus such as COVID-19. Experts have taken this particular perspective on how the counts surge through explosive transmissions over a short period of time, known as superspreading events—that superspreaders exist, and that they are the driving force behind the pandemic. One key trait of this new virus is that a large fraction of the population do not transmit it at all; instead, a minority is responsible for most of the infections around them. Last October, a large-scale study made in southeastern India of over half a million people revealed that a good 71% of the sample did not transmit the virus at all, while only 8% were responsible for as much as 60% of new infections.
Age was identified as one key characteristic of superspreaders—both the confirmed cases and deaths were reported to be concentrated in younger subjects. But the researchers digress: perhaps it was due to the fact that India has a young population that most of the findings gravitated towards youth. Another study of 194 healthy individuals addresses this limitation and surprisingly offers the contrary—that older, heavier people might in fact be the drivers of the pandemic. Just last month, researchers from Harvard University established that increasing exhalation of aerosols is associated with age and body mass index. Furthermore, the study confirmed that voice loudness and the amount of air expelled indeed had a role in emission of aerosol particles. Another study published in November 2020 relates superemission with teeth. Using 3D modelling and computer simulations, people with a full set of teeth were shown to propel infectious material farther when sneezing. It argues that this is possibly the reason behind the irregularity of transmission of respiratory infections.
There are some, too, who do not believe in the existence of the superspreader. Christian Kähler, a German physicist at the University of the Federal Armed Forces, claims that in the end, what matters most in the transmission of a virus is dependent on the behavior of the person himself—such as neglecting social distancing or wearing a face mask. Regardless, superspreading events have been proven even during the earliest stages of the pandemic. In March last year, a single person managed to pass COVID-19 on to at least 52 other people during a church choir practice, as revealed by a case study launched by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, in September, an outbreak of 61 positive cases was triggered by one client in a spin studio in Quebec despite following all the health protocols. This goes to show that superspreading events are the hallmark of this pandemic.
Although we cannot really say whether the young or the old are the true superspreaders—if they even exist—one year’s worth of data backs the policy directed by the Inter-Agency Task Force regarding age restrictions: only citizens aged 15-65 to years old are allowed to leave their homes. After all, not only are the youth and the elderly more prone to the effects of COVID-19, they are now also proven to be behind a majority of infections.
In the end, both science and logic have done their jobs. It is now up to these individuals, aka superspreaders, if they will choose to be the villains of our time by going out, or be superheroes by staying home. Then again, we, as a society, are all accountable for the state of the war against COVID-19. We are all heroes, or we are all villains—it is our respective choice. If we are each given a great responsibility for the welfare of others, perhaps we are also given the great power to triumph over COVID-19. We need no more superpowers; we are everything we need.