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Obese and aged having covid-19? You can be a super spreader

According to the Global Burden of Disease study released in 2016, close to a third of the world’s population—2.2 billion people—are classified as obese or overweight. Photo: iStockPremium
According to the Global Burden of Disease study released in 2016, close to a third of the world’s population—2.2 billion people—are classified as obese or overweight. Photo: iStock

  • Researchers found those who were older with higher body mass indexes and an increasing degree of covid-19 infection had three times the number of exhaled respiratory droplets as others in the study groups

NEW DELHI : Obese and aged can be super spreaders of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes covid-19, a research by Harvard University has shown.

Obesity, age and covid-19 infection correlate with a propensity to breathe out more respiratory droplets that are key spreaders of the virus, said researchers at Harvard University MIT conducted in association with Tulane University and Massachusetts General Hospital, US.

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The research has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Using data from an observational study of 194 healthy people and an experimental study of non-human primates with covid-19, researchers found that exhaled aerosol particles vary greatly between subjects. Those who were older with higher body mass indexes (BMI) and an increasing degree of covid-19 infection had three times the number of exhaled respiratory droplets as others in the study groups.

Scientists and public health experts have long held that certain individuals, termed "super-spreaders", can transmit covid-19 with incredible efficiency and devastating consequences. Researchers found that 18% of the human subjects accounted for 80% of the exhaled particles of the group, reflecting a distribution of exhaled aerosol particles that follows the 20/80 rule seen in other infectious disease epidemics - meaning 20% of infected individuals are responsible for 80% of transmissions.

Aerosol droplets in non-human primates increased as infection with covid-19 progressed, reaching peak levels a week after infection before falling to normal after two weeks.

Notably, as infection with covid-19 progressed, viral particles got smaller, reaching the size of a single micron at the peak of infection. Tiny particles are more likely to be expelled as people breathe, talk or cough. They can also stay afloat much longer, travel farther in the air and penetrate deeper into the lungs when inhaled.

The increase in exhaled aerosols occurred even among those with asymptomatic cases of covid-19, said Chad Roy, corresponding author and director of infectious disease aerobiology at the Tulane National Primate Research Center. "We've seen a similar increase in droplets during the acute infection stage with other infectious diseases like tuberculosis. It seems likely that viral and bacterial infections of the airway can weaken airway mucus, which promotes the movement of infectious particles into this environment," Roy said.

The generation of respiratory drops in the airways varies between people depending on their body composition, said lead author David Edwards, professor of the practice of biomedical engineering at Harvard University.

"While our results show that the 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," Edwards said.

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