Superspreaders: the question of heterogeneous transmissibility

In the course of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, epidemiologists observed phenomena of heterogeneous transmissibility, which were believed to account to a significant extent for the rapid spread of SARS-CoV across the globe. Although these phenomena were the result of situational and infrastructural singularities, attention was drawn to the individuals involved. Coined as “superspreaders” these were presented in both the medical and lay press as persons possessing the ability to infect more people than the usual individual. Seen not simply as implicated in but as responsible for instances of heterogeneous transmissibility, these alleged super-infectors have since become a regular figure in outbreak narratives. Moving attention away from infrastructural aspects of infection, and focusing it on supposedly hyper-virulent individuals, this has in turn led to calls for the predictive identification and isolation of the latter. This paper examines critically the rise of the superspreader in epidemiological models and discourse. In particular it focuses on its impact on biopolitical and geopolitical aspects of pandemic preparedness within the wider rubric of global health. The paper argues that the figure of the superspreader has played a crucial role in the entanglement of biopolitical and geopolitical configurations of the “next pandemic” as a potentially catastrophic global event.

Christos Lynteris

Presented at MAGic2015: Anthropology and Global Health: interrogating theory, policy and practice, European Association of Social Anthropologists & Royal Anthropological Institute, University of Sussex. 10 September 2015.

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