Children have for years been considered ‘super-spreaders’ of common winter bugs and the flu.
But doctors say the same may not apply for coronavirus, according to research that suggests they are not major spreaders of the disease.
An infected nine-year-old boy in France did not pass the vicious virus on to anyone – despite being in contact with 172 people while contagious.
The unnamed boy was at the centre of a cluster of cases which made international headlines in February.
He and 10 others were struck down while staying in a ski chalet in the French Alps as Steve Walsh, one of the first Britons known to have the virus.
The child went to three different ski schools in eastern France while unknowingly infected, and mingled with other people.
All of those were placed in quarantine when the child tested positive, but only one other child contracted COVID-19. Neither of his siblings were struck down.
Doctors suggested the boy was not the spreader of the virus to the one other case because he came into contact with so many people.
Researchers who studied the child’s case said it suggests children are not a primary concern when considering the viruses’ main routes of transmission.
This would mean its in stark contrast to other viruses like the common cold, which normally spreads rapidly among children.
This is because youngsters often have poor hygiene and come into contact with lots of other youngsters, who have similar habits.
Doctors have emphasised under 18s are just as at risk as any other age for picking up the virus – but unlikely to show severe symptoms.
The case of the nine-year-old boy was investigated by Public Health France and published in the US journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
They explained how the boy had continued to attend three ski clubs while he was unknowingly infected.
Through rapid intervention by health authorities, it was ascertained the child, who only displayed mild symptoms, came into contact with 172 people while sick.
All of those were placed in quarantine as a precaution, and 41 per cent had some respiratory symptoms (70).
In total, 73 people were tested and each result was negative except one who came back as positive while in hospital.
The doctors ruled that the boy did not pass on the virus to the one case because of the ‘large number of negative results of his tested contacts’.
Some 64 per cent of those contacts tested positive for other seasonal illnesses such as flu. But no cases of COVID-19 appeared in the following two weeks.
But because none of the other suspected cases were tested it cannot be said for certain that the boy did not pass it on to any in that group.
The researchers noted that even the child’s two siblings didn’t catch the virus.
They said that the case of the child could ‘suggest that children might not be an important source of transmissions of this novel virus’.
Other strains of the flu or respiratory viruses may be more easily spread between children, the team theorise.
They added that if there are other viruses circulating among children – which is likely – these bugs could suppress the transmission of SARS-CoV-2.
‘One child, co-infected with other respiratory viruses, attended three schools while symptomatic, but did not transmit the virus, suggesting potential different transmission dynamics in children,’ Kostas Danis, an epidemiologist at Public Health France, and lead study author, told AFP.
While coronavirus infections in children appear to be mainly mild, they are still capable of spreading the disease to older people at greater risk of serious illness.
Dozens of countries have closed schools as they try to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in the hopes it will stem the spread of the virus to other households.
Viruses typically concentrate in children because they come into very close contact with each other daily at nurseries and school.
Officials expected the novel coronavirus to be no exception, which is one of many reasons why schools have been shut.
But Professor Danis and colleagues write: ‘Current evidence indicates that children develop COVID-19 less often than adults and the clinical manifestations of the disease are milder. The above suggest that children, being less likely to be infected and more likely to develop mild disease, may play a less important role in the transmission of this novel virus.’
The boy had initially picked up the bug while in a ski chalet in France’s Haute-Savoie region.
He was part of an early coronavirus cluster in the country which centered around a British man called Steve Walsh.
Mr Walsh made headlines in February because the 53-year-old was one of the first British people to be infected with the coronavirus.
He had been to a business conference in Singapore in mid-January where he caught the virus.
On his route home to Brighton he stopped of for a ski holiday in the French Alps on January 24.
Mr Walsh, a father-of-two, spent three to four days in France with ten British adults and a British family – two adults and three children.
He tested positive for COVID-19 on February 6 in Brighton, after learning that he had been in contact with confirmed cases in Singapore.
Brighton became the centre of Britain’s coronavirus crisis in its early days, with six cases. GPs, schools, gyms and nursing homes shut their doors as a result.
Eleven people who were with Mr Walsh tested positive across the UK, France and Spain.
This included Britons Bob Saynor and his wife Dr Catriona Greenwood, who owned the chalet in France but live in Brighton.
Their nine-year-old son also tested positive – but Professor Danis and colleagues did not explicitly say it was this child they studied.
But they did write: ‘All cases were adults, apart from one nine-year-old who attended three different schools and one ski class while symptomatic.’