Making Sense of New Research Showing Covid-19 Is Airborne
Until the science is clear, prepare for the worst
In the early days of the pandemic, scientists warned that coughing and sneezing produced large, virus-carrying droplets that could cause infection if someone else breathed them in. These droplets were considered too big to hang in the air for long, but they could drop into someone’s mouth or nose, or onto a surface that someone might touch. So, masks were dutifully strapped on in an effort to prevent expelling those droplets into the spaces shared with others.
Meanwhile, a related question remained unanswered: What of the tinier droplets that flick out of our mouths when we talk — or even just breathe? It is possible that smaller droplets can stay aloft longer, by virtue of their size. Can they infect someone else who later entered the same indoor space? How long do they stay afloat, and can they move? In short: Is the coronavirus airborne?
These unanswered questions are at the center of a heated scientific debate that’s created a rift between the World Health Organization and at least 239 experts who authored a new paper showing that the coronavirus is indeed airborne. The paper, accepted into the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases on Monday, bears the title: “It is Time to Address Airborne Transmission of COVID-19.” It collates the existing research on this topic to argue that “beyond any reasonable doubt,” viruses including SARS-CoV-2 are “released during exhalation, talking, and coughing in microdroplets small enough to remain aloft in air and pose a risk of exposure at distances beyond 1 to 2 m from an infected individual.”
The WHO resisted this evidence when it was released because the organization was unconvinced of the data. But as the New York Times reported yesterday, the WHO plans to revisit the evidence in light of the backlash from scientists, admitting that the possibility of airborne transmission, especially in “crowded, closed, poorly ventilated settings, cannot be ruled out.”
While the science remains unsettled, the necessary precautions should be taken to protect ourselves from the potential risks posed by the worst-case scenario, which may also be the most likely one: that the coronavirus is indeed airborne, and that the…