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Hunt for "patient zero" who spread virus globally

A mundane business meeting at a Singapore hotel became an event that took the coronavirus global.

Now the hunt is on to find who carried the disease to the meeting for a company that sells gas meters.

The people there then spread it to five countries and infected over a dozen people.

Dale Fisher is part of a World Health Organization response network.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) CHAIR OF THE GLOBAL OUTBREAK ALERT & RESPONSE NETWORK COORDINATED BY WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION, DALE FISHER, SAYING:

"You might remember the SARS outbreak started in a hotel. So who attends hotels, who attends conferences? It's travellers around the world. That's part and parcel of life today, so if there is a transmission event in such a setting, then of course, that's a great way to export the virus around the world."

Experts say locating this so-called 'patient zero' is critcial for finding those exposed to the virus and stopping it.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) CHAIR OF THE GLOBAL OUTBREAK ALERT & RESPONSE NETWORK COORDINATED BY WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION, DALE FISHER, SAYING:

"So this is about contact tracing. We do feel uncomfortable obviously when we diagnose a patient with the illness and we can't work out where it came from. Therefore the containment activities are less effective."

Fisher compares the hotel meeting to another so-called "super-spreading" event at a Hong Kong hotel in 2003.

But while the WHO has opened an investigation into the Singapore incident it says it's 'way too early to tell' if it's a super-spreading event, too.

Management at the hotel say they cleaned extensively and were monitoring staff and guests for infection but did not know "how, where or when" conference attendees were infected.

The gas meter company says it immediately responded with self-isolation for all 109 attendees.

Ninety-four of them were from overseas and had left Singapore.

But, the virus kept spreading.

One from the UK headed to a French ski resort, where five people fell ill.

Another linked case then emerged in Spain.

When the British delegate went home to the south of England, the virus gained further ground.