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What makes someone more likely to spread COVID-19 to others?

Researchers say the severity of a coronavirus infection was one of the biggest risk factors

Photo (c) arthobbit - Getty Images
Health officials have urged consumers to take steps to reduce the chance that they spread COVID-19 to others, including wearing a mask and social distancing. But what are some of the more inherent qualities that a person has that makes them more likely to spread the disease? 

A new study conducted by researchers from Tulane University sought to determine just that by looking into which factors contribute to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Though a few things come into play, the researchers say that those who produce more respiratory droplets tend to have a higher chance of spreading the disease around. 

“While our results show that young and healthy tend to generate far fewer droplets than the older and less healthy, they also show that any of us, when infected by COVID-19, may be at risk of producing a large number of respiratory droplets,” said researcher David Edwards, PhD.  

Identifying superspreaders

Those who have the highest likelihood of transmitting the coronavirus have been dubbed “superspreaders,” and the researchers’ main goal was to determine what qualities a person has that gives them that distinction. To identify those who pose the biggest risk, the researchers compared the rate of respiratory droplets produced by nearly 200 healthy adults with coronavirus-infected primates. 

The researchers identified three primary targets that increase the likelihood of spreading COVID-19: body mass index (BMI), age, and severity of the infection. Participants who fell into one of these three groups were responsible for emitting the most respiratory droplets into the air -- at a rate that was around three times higher than the average person. The team found that the risk was highest when participants fell into all three categories. 

The researchers said that the severity of infection was a particularly big risk factor in the study. They found that as the participants got sicker over the course of the study, their respiratory droplets decreased in size. Though this may seem like a positive in terms of spreading infection, it actually makes it easier for these infection particles to be passed from person-to-person when talking or laughing in close contact. 

At the height of infection, consumers produce the highest number of respiratory droplets that are the smallest in size, which is what contributes to the greatest spread of the virus. 

“We’ve seen a similar increase in droplets during the acute infection stage with other infectious diseases like tuberculosis,” said Dr. Edwards. “It seems likely that viral and bacterial infections of the airway can weaken airway mucus, which promotes the movement of infectious particles into the environment.” 

These findings were true for both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases of COVID-19, which makes it all the more important for consumers to continue following health guidelines to help reduce the spread of the virus. 

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