Over the last six months, many experts and major health organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), have maintained that COVID-19 is not an airborne virus. Instead, it is primarily transmitted person to person through respiratory droplets that are released when an infected individual coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice. Those droplets then land into the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly, inhaled via the lungs, or fall to the floor. However, a new team of international experts claim that the WHO hasn’t exactly been forthright about the nature of how exactly coronavirus is spread—and that in fact may be airborne after all.
The Word Seems to be “Loaded”
The group, consisting of 239 scientists around the world, claim that the virus can actually float inside of air droplets, and that it is likely spread that way. That would make it airborne in nature. However, according to Donald Milton, one of the authors of the open letter to the World Health Organization and other health agencies set to publish this week in the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, agencies are afraid to discuss the airborne nature of coronavirus.
“The airborne transmission word seems to be loaded,” Milton told CNN on Sunday. “I guess we are hoping that WHO will come around and be more willing to acknowledge the important roles of aerosols, whether they want to call it airborne transmission or not.”
The Consequences Could be Huge
If, in fact, the virus is airborne, it would mean that droplets of it would not fall immediately to the floor. Instead, they could linger in the air indoors, infecting anyone nearby. It could make it nearly impossible to contain the virus in crowded spaces with poor ventilation—even with masks and social distancing precautions in place.
“Ventilation systems in schools, nursing homes, residences and businesses may need to minimize recirculating air and add powerful new filters. Ultraviolet lights may be needed to kill viral particles floating in tiny droplets indoors,” points out the New York Times.
“I am very much concerned about the general public and schools and ventilation in school buildings and in dorms on college campuses and in bars and in churches and where people sing and where people congregate,” Milton confessed to CNN.
The WHO Claims the Evidence is “Unconvincing”
Dr. Benedetta Allegranzi, the WHO’s technical lead on infection control, told the NYT the evidence for the virus spreading by air was unconvincing.
“Especially in the last couple of months, we have been stating several times that we consider airborne transmission as possible but certainly not supported by solid or even clear evidence,” she said. “There is a strong debate on this.”
However, the publication claims to have interviewed nearly 20 scientists—including a dozen members of the WHO as well as several members of the committee that crafted the guidance—that claim otherwise.
“Whether carried aloft by large droplets that zoom through the air after a sneeze, or by much smaller exhaled droplets that may glide the length of a room, these experts said, the coronavirus is borne through air and can infect people when inhaled,” says the NYT.
One WHO consultant, who remained anonymous, claimed that the WHO will “die defending their view.”
“I do get frustrated about the issues of airflow and sizing of particles, absolutely,” said Mary-Louise McLaws, a committee member and epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, told the paper. “If we started revisiting airflow, we would have to be prepared to change a lot of what we do,” she said. “I think it’s a good idea, a very good idea, but it will cause an enormous shudder through the infection control society.”
The authors of the letter are asking the WHO to update their recommendations for COVID-19. A spokesperson for WHO told CNBC on Monday it was aware of the reported open letter and would “likely” address it at the group’s regular press briefing on Monday. However, the WHO ended up postponing the meeting until Tuesday, July 7.
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