A WORLDWIDE hunt is under way for a coronavirus “patient zero” believed to have spread it around the world by infecting delegates at conference in Singapore.
The mystery “super spreader” took the virus global, passing it to more than a dozen people in at least five countries from South Korea to Spain and the UK.
Health chiefs fear there could be other unknown cases arising from the same source and are scrambling to work out who brought the virus into the conference hall.
British Scout leader Steve Walsh, 53, is believed to have picked up the contagion in Singapore and unwittingly infected others in France, Sussex and Majorca.
Authorities want to identify who he and others caught it from – most likely another delegate at the January sales conference organised by British gas analytics firm Servomex.
It was initially suggested Chinese delegates could have brought in the virus, including one from Wuhan where more than 1,000 people have died.
But Servomex said its Chinese delegates had not tested positive.
Experts say finding the “patient zero” is critical for tracing all those potentially exposed to the virus and containing the outbreak.
But as time passes the harder it becomes, said Prof Dale Fisher, chair of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network coordinated by the World Health Organisation.
He told Reuters: “We do feel uncomfortable obviously when we diagnose a patient with the illness and we can’t work out where it came from.
“The containment activities are less effective.”
Prof Fisher and other experts have compared it to another so-called “super-spreading” incident at a Hong Kong hotel in 2003 when a sick Chinese doctor spread Sars around the world.
SPREADER IN THE ROOM
The 109 delegates at Singapore’s luxury Grand Hyatt hotel – renowned for its racy nightclub in the basement – snapped pictures of Chinese lion dancers snaking between their tables.
The performance was meant to bring good fortune, but attendees soon found themselves at the centre of a global crisis.
It was more than a week after the conference that the first case surfaced in a delegate who had returned home to Malaysia.
Servomex said it immediately adopted “extensive measures” to contain the virus and protect employees and the wider community.
That included self-isolation for all attendees, of whom 94 were from overseas and had left Singapore. But the virus kept spreading.
Two South Koreans fell sick after sharing a buffet meal with the Malaysian, who also passed the infection to his sister and mother-in-law.
Three of the firm’s Singapore attendees also tested positive.
Then cases started appearing in Europe.
Servomex’s entire leadership team and global sales staff were at the conference – including Mr Walsh, from Hove.
After leaving Singapore he had a brief skiing holiday in the French Alps with wife Catherine and pals.
Four of his friends — including Dr Catriona Greenwood and another GP — returned home to Britain on January 24 before testing positive at the weekend.
In Brighton, two GP surgeries were closed, and officials are scrambling to trace patients treated by an infected doctor at Worthing A&E.
Five more Brits who shared the ski chalet, including Dr Greenwood’s husband Bob Saynor and their nine-year-old son, were taken to hospital in France.
‘SCARY AND SOBERING’
Another expat also infected with the virus in France fell ill after returning home to Majorca, taking the total number of cases linked to Mr Walsh to 11.
A dozen schools in Sussex have pupils or staff who are self-isolating to stop the spread.
Natalie Brown, whose children are at one affected school, said: “It feels really scary that one minute it’s a story in China and then the next minute it is literally on our doorstep.
“It’s scary and sobering how quickly it seems to have spread.”
In Singapore, authorities are battling to keep track of new cases of local transmissions, many unconnected to previous cases.
Bosses at the Grand Hyatt said they had cleaned extensively and were monitoring staff and guests for infection but did not know “how, where or when” conference attendees were infected.
The troupe of lion dancers hired for the event said they were virus free.
“Everyone assumes it was a delegate but it could have been a cleaner, it could have been a waiter,” said Paul Tambyah, an infectious diseases expert at National University Singapore.
He added it was “very important” to find patient zero to establish other possible “chains of transmission”.
But time may be running out.
Singapore health ministry’s Kenneth Mak said: “We might never be able to tell who that first patient is.”
The WHO has opened an investigation into the Singapore outbreak, but said its “too early” to tell if it is a super-spreading event.
The death toll from the virus – now named Covid-19, is now over 1,400, almost all in China.