Global experts warn of COVID-19 airborne threat

Agence France-Presse . Washington | Published: 19:30, Jul 07,2020 | Updated: 00:58, Jul 08,2020

 
 

As countries ease their lockdowns, authorities need to recognise the coronavirus can spread through the air far beyond the two meters urged in social distancing guidelines, an international group of 239 scientists said Monday.

In a comment piece that takes direct aim at the World Health Organisation for its reluctance to update its advice, researchers recommended new measures including increasing indoor ventilation, installing high-grade air filters and UV lamps, and preventing overcrowding in buildings and transport.

‘There is significant potential for inhalation exposure to viruses in microscopic respiratory droplets (microdroplets) at short to medium distances (up to several meters, or room scale),’ wrote the authors, led by Lidia Morawska of the Queensland University of Technology.

‘Hand washing and social distancing are appropriate, but in our view, insufficient to provide protection from virus-carrying respiratory microdroplets released into the air by infected people.’

The new paper appears in the Oxford Academic journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

When an infected person breathes, speaks, coughs or sneezes, they expel droplets of various sizes.

Those above five to ten micrometres — which is less than the width of a typical human head hair — fall to the ground in seconds and within a meter or two.

Droplets under this size can become suspended in the air in what is called an ‘aerosol,’ remaining aloft for several hours and traveling up to tens of meters.

There has been a debate in the scientific community about how infectious microdroplets are in the context of COVID-19.

For the time being the WHO advises that the potential for infection from an aerosol occurs ‘in specific circumstances’ mainly in hospitals, for example when a tube is placed down a patient’s airway.

On the other hand, some studies of particular spreading events suggest that aerosolisation and microdroplet transmission can happen in a variety of settings.

The air flow from an air conditioning unit appeared to waft the coronavirus to several tables in a Chinese restaurant in January where patrons became infected, according to a study that appeared in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Another study that appeared in a report by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that the virus was spread by microdroplets from people singing during a choir practice in Washington state in March.

Fifty-three people fell ill at that event and two died.

That is in addition to the fact that bars jam-packed with people have also emerged as hotspots of contagion, with droplets of all sizes believed to contribute to the spread.

Cath Noakes, a professor of environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds, who contributed to the paper, said COVID-19 doesn’t spread in the air as easily as measles or tuberculosis, but is a threat nonetheless.

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