The virus behind the world’s COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic can stay infectious in the air for more than 12 hours, early research out of four major US laboratories has found, as more scientists warn it may have been underestimated by authorities such as the World Health Organisation.
It is still unclear how much of the SARS-CoV-2 virus you would need to inhale to get sick. But researchers from America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and elsewhere found it was “remarkably resilient” in the air when aerosolised into smaller particles compared with the two other deadly coronaviruses to emerge in humans, SARS and MERS. After 16 hours, particles of the new virus could still infect cells in a dish and looked intact under the microscope.
“That’s very unusual, we’d expect them to be ripped apart in the air by then,” said infectious disease aerobiologist Professor Chad Roy, one of the co-authors of the research. “We scientists don’t use this kind of bold language lightly so health authorities need to take note.”
The work has not yet been put through rigorous peer review but was released this month ahead of publication as scientists around the world fast-track their usual, often protracted process in the face of a fast-moving and dangerous new virus. Professor Roy said the team was confident in the findings as they had been replicated across four different labs, including the US army’s virology hub Fort Detrick.
“We’re all running under a fire drill, there’s still so much we don’t know about this virus and it’s all so urgent,” he said. “Of course we need more research, environmental conditions [outside the lab] will vary and change how [the virus] acts but in science when you see a warning light blinking on like this, you need to pay attention.”
Experts largely agree that the new virus is not airborne in the same way as notably infectious diseases such as measles. Its primary route of transmission, like the flu, is thought to be through large water droplets, which can shoot out from the nose or mouth for up to a metre when a patient coughs or sneezes. Sometimes they contaminate surfaces but they’re too heavy to survive long in the air.
But the droplet theory, and the 1.5 metre distance rule adopted by most health authorities around the world, is based on old medical dogma from the 1930s, some aerosol experts such as WHO advisor Professor Lidia Morawska say.
Researchers, including Professor Morawska, have since found that some respiratory illnesses, including the flu, can also travel in aerosols just from breathing or speaking. If the new virus can too, she says it might explain recent outbreaks such as on locked down cruise ships or the phenomenon of ‘superspreaders” also seen during SARS where one patient sheds much more virus than usual.
While large particles tend to carry more virus than smaller aerosols, Professor Roy said it had been assumed by health authorities that only big droplets could carry any live virus at all. This work now added to a growing body of evidence the COVID-19 virus was also viable as an airborne pathogen, he said.
“I think as COVID-19 continues we will see its infection or [reproduction number] go up. It’s certainly spreading easier than SARS.”
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