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Over 200 scientists in more than 30 countries say the coronavirus is airborne and that the World Health Organization is not doing nearly enough to address the issue.
In a letter entitled “It is Time to Address Airborne Transmission of Covid-19” the scientists lay out an argument many of them have been making for months: that coronavirus is not just spread through large droplets and direct contact with infected people, but also though microscopic particles that linger in the air indoors and infect those nearby when they inhale them into their lungs.
It means that crowded or poorly ventilated indoor settings such as bars, restaurants, casinos, schools, and offices are especially dangerous and would account for a number of “super spreading” incidents.
The letter is due to be published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal and is authored by Lidia Morawska, an expert in aerosol transmission at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, and Donald Milton, a professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland. It has been endorsed by 239 scientists from 32 countries.
Scientists across the globe have tried for months to raise the alarm about airborne transmission, but public health agencies like the WHO have failed to take notice, forcing scientists to take the highly unusual step of publishing this letter.
The WHO guidance says that COVID-19 is spread primarily by large respiratory droplets that fall quickly to the ground once expelled by infected patients through coughing and sneezing.
The WHO’s advice on stopping the spread of coronavirus has so far focused on social distancing measures and regular hand-washing, but it has stopped short of saying that face coverings, like masks and face shields, should be mandatory in any situation.
“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.”
Milton added that he is most worried about locations where people are crowded together in poorly ventilated buildings speaking loudly, which increases the amount of particles spread by infected people.
“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,” he said.
Evidence from the U.S. appears to back up the claims in the letter. In recent weeks, as states reopened offices, bars, and restaurants, there has been a surge of cases across almost all corners of the country, with at least 32 states still reporting rising numbers of infections.
Despite muted July 4th celebrations last weekend, there were almost 50,000 new cases reported on Sunday, with California reporting a record 11,700 cases in a single 24-hour period.
If the scientists are right, governments and health authorities will need to significantly alter what measures they put in place to try to contain the virus.
To prevent airborne transmission, masks will need to be worn indoors even when people are socially distancing. Medical workers will need to wear N95 masks to filter out the smallest particles being expelled by infected patients. And buildings like schools and offices will need to upgrade their ventilation systems in order to filter out any coronavirus particles.
It’s unclear if the WHO will change its advice on how coronavirus is transmitted, but spokesperson Andrei Muchnik said it was aware of the letter and “reviewing its contents with our technical experts.” He added the matter would likely be addressed at the WHO’s daily press briefing later on Monday.
This is not the first time the organization has come under fire for its failure to provide the public with clear and timely advice.
“WHO’s credibility is being undermined through a steady drip-drip of confusing messages, including asymptomatic spread, the use of masks, and now airborne transmission,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, told the Washington Post.
Cover: Drinks are served at The Terrace Bar, Alexandra Palace, London, as it reopens following the easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions across England. Picture date: Saturday July 4, 2020. The easing of restrictions, which were imposed on March 23, allows businesses including pubs restaurants and hair salons, to reopen to members of the public with measures in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. See PA story HEALTH Coronavirus. Photo credit should read: Adam Davy/PA Wire URN:54441437 (Press Association via AP Images)