How church became coronavirus super-spreader

Tuesday March 24 2020
travel pic

Passengers wait for transportation outside the Abelardo L. Rodriguez International airport in Tijuana, Mexico, on January 27, 2020. PHOTO | GUILLERMO ARIAS | AFP


By mid last month, South Korea had succeeded in controlling the spread of coronavirus within its populations.

The South Korean government had stabilised the situation and contained the number of those infected by the virus to 30 until something terrible happened, rolling back all the efforts to nil.

Satisfied with their government’s efforts, most South Koreans felt confident enough to drop their guard. They took off their surgical masks and resumed shopping at malls.

Then on February 17, an unidentified 61-year-old woman surfaced in hospital in Daegu City, which was the epicentre of infections in South Korea. She tested positive.

She would be the country’s 31st patient, who has placed the whole world in a virtual lockdown.

When authorities started tracing her tracks, it was discovered that she had, during the previous 10 days, attended two worship services with at least 1,000 members of her secretive religious sect known as Shincheonji.


Within a day, the country, which now has more than 8,000 cases, recorded an exponential rise in the cases. The numbers started multiplying. The tally rose by 20 on that day, doubled the following day and then doubled again the third day.

Explore the coronavirus tracker

The numbers skyrocketed to 1,600 — a more than 50-fold increase in a week that prompted the government to raise its health alert to the highest level.

Half of the cases were linked to Shincheonji sect, whose members worship side by side in cramped spaces. The woman, who has earned a moniker “Patient 31”, is the best example of cases known as “super spreaders” in medical terms.

A study done in the US, whose findings were published in Jama — The Journal of the American Medical Association — has established that coronavirus is transmitted easily from person to person, largely because many people are asymptomatic at first and may not realise they are infected. In medical terms, not everybody is equal when it comes to infectious diseases spread. There is a small group of patients — deemed “super spreaders” — who may pass the virus more readily than the average person.

Super-spreaders have been documented as far back as the early 1900s when one woman infected 51 people with typhoid even though she had no symptoms herself.

In 1998, one student at a high school in Finland infected 22 others with measles even though eight of them had been vaccinated. Two people are thought to have infected 50 others with Ebola in the DR Congo in 1995.

In the case of “Patient 31”, health officials in South Korea still do not know how she was infected or how she spread the virus to fellow Shincheonji members. “Patient 31” first checked into hospital on February 7, complaining of headaches after being involved in a car accident the day before. She didn’t have any record of travelling overseas or any known contact with a coronavirus patient. She also didn’t have any fever, cough or respiratory symptoms.

On the third day of being in hospital, the patient developed fever and received a flu test, which came back negative. The next day, she left the hospital for two hours to attend a morning service at Shincheonji church. She also had lunch with a friend at a hotel on February 15 and attended another service on February 16 at her church.

As her condition worsened, a scan showed signs of pneumonia. This prompted doctors to test for coronavirus on February 17. Ten days after she first set foot in a hospital, her infection was confirmed.

At the two worship services she attended, more than 1,000 people sat on the floor, elbow to elbow and knee to knee for as long as two hours.

The sect’s belief system is that the end time is coming soon and the physical body is not as important. Even if worshippers are really sick, they have to go to the church because that gives them the word of life. South Korea’s government has launched a manhunt for more than 212,000 sect members who have gone into hiding.

In the US, Reverend Timothy Cole of Christ Church Episcopal in Georgetown was infected after he shook hands with more than 500 worshippers, including performing the rite of Holy Communion.