superspreader 2As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to preoccupy the world, we’ve seen the sudden emergence of new words or the dramatic increase in use of unfamiliar ones (e.g. furlough, PPE, self-isolation). Even the word coronavirus itself was comparatively unknown despite the fact that one form of the common cold is a type of coronavirus.

One word which emerged early on during the COVID-19 outbreak was superspreader. It refers to a person who spreads the infection to a much larger number of people than average. As the virus first began to spread, newspapers and social media were quick to report these cases:

‘Patient 31’ and South Korea’s sudden spike in coronavirus cases1

Coronavirus ‘super-spreader’ named as Brighton scout leader2

In last month’s blog, we saw how the prefix super– is used to indicate an extreme: supermoon, superfast, superhero. Many of these words, especially more recent ones, are informal (e.g. superfast) but there is also a wide range of words where super– is used formally, often with a word of Latin origin: superego, superconductivity, superficial. Words like these often have a scientific use.

So is superspreader a term with a proper scientific use? Or it is just a journalistic term designed to personify an invisible threat?

Research shows that there are real cases where a single person is responsible for spreading infections widely. There was the infamous case of Mary Mallon who infected 51 people with typhoid between 1900 and 1915, despite being asymptomatic herself. In Minnesota in 1992, one man passed tuberculosis to 41 of his 97 contacts, even though the normal transmission rate is 1-2%. Some research suggests that 80% of transmission is driven by only 20% of infected individuals.3

But the question is: is there something special about the biology of superspreaders that makes them more likely to shed high quantities of virus? Or is it simply a result of circumstances – in other words, the ‘superspreader’ happened to be in contact with an unusually large number of people, in a confined space, when he or she was at the peak of infectiousness?

According to one scientist, superspreaders are real and deserve special attention: “Control efforts should aim to identify the highly infectious superspreaders, and target vaccination or other interventions at them.”4 But another says: “The loose and non-scientific term ‘Super Spreader’ is a misnomer. […] What we have are circumstances that lead to the infection of a larger number of people.”5

At a time when public policy is being ‘guided by science’, it is useful to be reminded that there are often limits on scientific certainty.

Martin Moore is Head of Content Management in the ELT division. He has 30 years’ experience in language learning as editor, writer and teacher.


1 Al Jazeera

2 The Times

3 Richard A. Stein

4 Alison P. Galvani and Robert M. May

2the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford, OX1 3PS UK

5 Dr Bharat Pankhania

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

Every year we help millions of people around the world to learn English. As a department of the University of Oxford, we further the University’s objective of excellence in education by publishing proven and tested language learning books, eBooks, learning materials, and educational technologies.

One thought

  1. In the article entitled “superspreader”, some words, which are not examples, are in bold face, such as pandemic and preoccupy. Why?

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