Monday, July 13, 2020

Technology Review Finally Catches Up With CNu On Aerosol Transmission



technologyreview |  “I honestly don’t know what people are waiting for,” says microbiologist Chad Roy of Tulane University in the US. “It doesn’t take WHO coming out to make a proclamation that it’s airborne for us to appreciate this is an airborne disease. I don’t know how much clearer it needs to be in terms of scientific evidence.” 

So what does “airborne” really mean in this context? It’s basically an issue of size. We’re pretty sure that SARS-CoV-2 is spread through tiny droplets that contain viral particles capable of leading to an infection. For a virus to be airborne, however, means a few different things, depending on the expert you’re talking to. Typically it means it can spread via inhalation over long distances, perhaps even through different rooms, of small particles known as aerosols.

“That’s why when you ask some of the professionals if the virus is airborne, they’ll say it’s not, because we’re not seeing transmission over those sorts of distances,” says Lisa Brosseau, a retired professor of public health who still consults for businesses and organizations.

There is also some debate on what we mean by “aerosol.” The droplets that carry viral particles through the air can come in all sorts of sizes, but while the larger ones will drop quickly to the ground or other surfaces, the smaller ones (just a few microns across) can linger in the air for a while, giving them a chance to be inhaled. The word is mostly used to describe these smaller particles, although Brosseau would prefer the term “aerosol transmission” to cover the entire gamut of inhalable viral particles being expelled into the air—large and small alike. 

If SARS-CoV-2 is airborne, it’s far from the only disease. Measles is notorious for being able to last in the air for up to two hours. Tuberculosis, though a bacterium, can be airborne for six hours, and Brosseau suggests that coronavirus superspreaders (people who seem to eject a larger amount of the virus than others) disseminate the virus in patterns that recall the infectiousness of tuberculosis.

Brosseau, however, says that though masks can limit the spread of larger particles, they are less helpful for smaller ones, especially if they fit only loosely. “I wish we would stop relying on the idea that face coverings are going to solve everything and help flatten the curve,” she says. “It’s magical thinking—it’s not going to happen.” For masks to really make a difference, they would need to be worn all the time, even around family.

Brosseau does believe the evidence is trending toward the conclusion that airborne transmission is “the primary and possibly most important mode of transmission for SARS-CoV-2.” She says, “I think the amount of time and effort devoted to sanitizing every single surface over and over and over again has been a huge waste of time. We don’t need to worry so much about cleaning every single surface we touch.” Instead, the focus should be on other factors, like where we spend our time.

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