What you need to know about the airborne transmission of COVID-19

By: Alina Dang

On July 6th, over 200 experts signed an open letter to the World Health Organization arguing that it is time to realize that the coronavirus is airborne. There were many debates on whether the virus can float through air and now there is substantial evidence.

At first, scientists thought that the virus was spread largely through bits of spit or mucus that people coughed or sneezed. Those droplets would fall from the air. The WHO has long insisted that the coronavirus spreads with only larger droplets which usually do not travel farther than six feet. However, researchers increasingly think that the coronavirus can be in the air longer and travel farther in smaller droplets that can be produced by people talking and breathing.

Benedetta Allegranzi, coordinator of WHO’s global infection prevention unit said on July 7, “We acknowledge that there is emerging evidence in this field. We have to be open to this evidence and understand its implications regarding the modes of transmission and also regarding the precautions that need to be taken.” The WHO plans to issue updated guidelines in the coming days.

Lab studies have found that infectious coronavirus can stay in the air for at least three hours when artificially aerosolized. According to an article in Science News, journalist Jonathan Lambert wrote, “But evidence from ‘superspreader’ events also point to airborne transmission. For example, a single infected person at a choir practice in Mount Vernon, Wash., infected at least 45 other people, many of whom were farther than six feet from the sick singer.”

The mode of transmission informs prevention strategies. The WHO has continually highlighted the importance of social distancing and washing hands to prevent and slow the spread of Covid-19. Although these are still very important, they are insufficient against an airborne virus, which can travel far in enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces. Masks may be necessary in such situations.

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