How one partygoer became Thailand’s first ‘super-spreader’
Thailand looks poised to confirm its first official “super spreader” as fears grow over the scale of the latest cluster infection.
The hashtag #DJ Matoom is top-trending on Twitter after the recent celebrity birthday party of Techin “DJ Matoom” Ploypetch on the rooftop of a five-star Bangkok hotel became “super-spreader event”.
One party-goer broke his 14-day self-isolation period and spread COVID-19 to other revellers. So far, the party has spawned at least 19 other new COVID-19 cases.
“Transmissions in Bangkok should be highlighted. They show the possibility of a person becoming a super-spreader,” said Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) spokesperson Dr Apisamai Srirangsan during the daily briefing on Monday.
She said the 33-year-old guest’s infection is the source of several clusters, including the confirmed infection of an NBT news announcer that sent CCSA spokesman Dr Taweensin Wisanuyothin into a precautionary 14-day isolation. The NBT host had attended another party at which guests of DJ Matoom’s birthday celebration were present.
Dr Thira Woratanarat of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine refused to lay blame. But his Facebook message was clear: “No doubt. 19 people => superspreader or superspreading event.”
The birth of a super-spreader
Between January 1 and 4, the guest visited Chiang Mai’s Warmupcafe – one of the province’s best-known entertainment venues. On January 5, he sought a COVID-19 test following news that several infected people had visited the place. That first test result came back negative.
However, authorities have repeatedly said the viral incubation period can run from a few days to a few weeks. This window explains why people exposed to COVID-19 cases are required to isolate for 14 days.
This carefree spirit, however, flew back to Bangkok on January 6 and spent just a few days alone. On January 9, he hung out with DJ Matoom as he went ahead with his birthday celebrations, despite calls for social distancing in the wake of a fresh COVID-19 wave in Thailand.
On January 10, DJ Matoom’s guest was at home, but the following day he visited a temple. He then stayed home until January 17, after recognising he was losing his sense of smell – a symptom of COVID-19. On January 18, he sought a drive-through test and found he was infected.
DJ Matoom was alerted on January 19, took a test and was confirmed COVID-positive on January 20. Almost in tears, he went public about his infection and apologised to all who may be affected.
While DJ Matoom has a huge following, questions about his behaviour are growing online. Monday saw more than 570,000 tweets about him, most of them critical. Many demand that he and his guest be punished for violating disease-control protocol.
What is a super-spreader?
Authorities define “super spreaders” rather broadly. But in essence, a super spreader is a patient who infects significantly more people than normal.
One person infected with COVID-19 case will, on average, transmit the disease to two others, explained Dr Tanarak Plipat, now acting inspector-general of the Public Health Ministry.
A super-spreader, on the other hand, will transmit the virus to multiple people.
Super-spreaders, as a result, are everyone’s worst fear in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their emergence inevitably means the contagion spreads too fast to contain quickly, leading to serious damage both to health and the economy.
COVID-19 has now infected 99.3 million people and claimed more than 2.13 million lives across the world. Thailand, which successfully controlled the outbreak for most of 2020, has recorded 13,678 cases and 75 deaths.
Rumours about Thai super-spreaders
The arrival of COVID-19 in Thailand early last year sparked immediate worry about the emergence of super-spreaders. Public concern grew last February when an elderly couple returned from Japan with COVID-19 and infected their grandchild. But tests on around 100 contacts of the couple came back negative and worries of a super spreader subsided.
It spiked again last March, though, when a Thai boxing guru apparently spawned a cluster of infections at Lumpini stadium in Bangkok. The 79-year-old succumbed to COVID-19 soon after. Initially, reports suggested he caught the disease from his daughter, who had just returned from Italy then spread the virus at the stadium. However, tests showed the virus strain responsible for the stadium cluster was not imported from Italy.
Last February, a South Korean woman made international headlines for being a “super-transmitter”. The 61-year-old member of the controversial Shincheonji Church of Jesus is believed to have directly infected dozens of people, while her presence at church services was blamed for directly or indirectly causing more than 5,000 cases.
Earlier this month, a local traveller in northeast China was the latest to be dubbed a “super-spreader” after health authorities linked him to more than 100 new COVID-19 cases. The 45-year-old worked in the health sector and was touring Jilin province, which borders North Korea, and unknowingly spreading the virus.
Tackling the source
Bangkok Metropolitan Administration spokesman Pongsakorn Kwanmuang said the city implemented 10 measures to prevent super-spreaders since December. Among them are strict controls on markets, public parks, religious sites and entertainment venues.
“We have also banned events that attract big turnouts,” he said.
Disease Control Department director-general Dr Opart Karnkawinpong warned partying with people in one’s close circle was not risk-free.
“Singing, shouting, and alcohol consumption raise the risks further,” he cautioned. “Everyone must be careful.”
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk