After 239 scientists from 32 countries wrote to the World Health Organization, submitting evidence that the novel coronavirus can remain in the air for a longer period of time, thus infecting people, the WHO has acknowledged “evidence emerging” of the airborne spread of COVID-19.
The group of scientists “outlined the evidence showing that smaller particles can infect people, and are calling for the agency to revise its recommendation”. Previously, WHO had suggested that a respiratory infection like COVID-19 is primarily transmitted between people through respiratory droplets and contact routes. Their viewpoint was that the infectious droplets were larger than 5-10 microns in diameter, and hence they eventually sink to the ground after travelling less than 1 metre.
But latest reports indicate otherwise. In an open letter to the Geneva-based agency – which was published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal – 239 scientists are now citing evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, can spread through droplets that are smaller than 5 microns in diameter (called droplet nuclei). It implies a higher risk of transmission since these smaller droplets can travel longer than one metre and linger in the air.
“We have been talking about the possibility of airborne transmission and aerosol transmission as one of the modes of transmission of COVID-19,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead on the COVID-19 pandemic at the WHO, was quoted by media reports.
According to Maria, a “comprehensive package of interventions is required to be able to stop transmission”.
"This includes not only physical distancing, but also the use of masks where appropriate in certain settings, specifically where you can't do physical distancing and especially for healthcare workers,” she added.
The latest piece of information has, unsurprisingly, fuelled a wave of panic. However, if experts are to be believed, the airborne transmission occurs in "special situations".
"We don't say it doesn't happen. But it does not mean that since COVID-19 is airborne, it means it is everywhere and nothing can be done. If it was truly airborne like measles, in the sense that it was everywhere, all of us would have been infected by now," Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO's Chief Scientist told a news site.
Dr Swaminathan emphasised that by practising social distancing and other means of caution, the spread can be controlled.
(Edited by Kanishk Singh)