Is the New Coronavirus Airborne? A Study From China Finds Evidence
By Joni Sweet
Reducing our risk for COVID-19 depends on how well we understand the way SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is transmitted.
Experts believe SARS-CoV-2 mainly spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets released when a person with the virus coughs, sneezes, or talks.
It's also possible that you can contract the virus if your hands come in contact with your mouth, nose, or eyes after touching a contaminated surface.
But can SARS-CoV-2 be spread through the air we breathe?
A new study has found evidence of the virus in the air around two hospitals in Wuhan, China.
While it's still unclear whether you can contract the virus from breathing virus-laden air, the latest findings could make an impact on how we protect ourselves as states begin to open up.
Coronavirus Material Found in the Air
In a report published April 27 in the journal Nature, researchers measured the concentration of genetic material known as RNA from the new coronavirus in samples collected in February and March from 30 spots in and around two COVID-19 treatment hospitals in Wuhan.
One hospital was dedicated to treating patients with severe cases of the disease, while the other was a makeshift field hospital used to quarantine and treat people with mild symptoms.
The investigators found higher concentrations of material from the virus in samples collected in areas prone to crowding, certain intensive care units, and places with poor airflow, like bathrooms.
Areas where medical staff removed protective apparel were found to have elevated concentrations of viral material, which may indicate that SARS-CoV-2 can be resuspended in the air when staff take off their apparel.
Sites that were rigorously sanitized, well-ventilated, and uncrowded were found to have low or undetectable concentrations of viral RNA in aerosol samples.
Can You Contract the Virus From the Air?
A World Health Organization scientific brief from March 29 found that there were no reports of airborne transmission of the new coronavirus.
While the recent Nature study didn't look at whether airborne viral material can infect someone, the findings indicate the need for further research on the possibility of contracting the new coronavirus from air contaminated with viral material.
"If you think about aerosol transmission in medicine, the chickenpox can be transmitted just by someone having been in a room where someone [with the virus] was breathing before they had any symptoms," said Dr. Natasha Lewry Beauvais of Northern Virginia Family Practice. "The typical cold virus is not transmitted that way."
The size of the particles may make a difference in whether the virus can infect someone, says Dr. Jill Grimes, a board certified family physician and author of "The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook."
The respiratory droplets believed to spread COVID-19 are around 5 microns, while the aerosolized SARS-CoV-2 in the study were as small as a quarter of a micron in size.
"The problem with aerosolized particles is that they're teeny tiny. How many particles does it take to infect someone? We don't know the answer to that," Grimes said.
Wearing a mask can help you avoid inhaling infected droplets and releasing them into the air if you happen to be carrying the virus.
Cotton fabric, often used for homemade cloth masks, have pore sizes between 50 and 100 microns, according to an article from Grimes.
She recommends wearing masks made from at least two layers of fabric and inserting a coffee filter between them for more protection.
"Those cloth masks need to be washed after you wear them, at least every day," Grimes added.
How to Protect Yourself as States Reopen
Taking precautions around the known ways that the new coronavirus spreads can help keep you safe as states begin to reopen.
While it's clear that small amounts of SARS-CoV-2 material may be in the air, doctors say the biggest risk of contracting the new coronavirus come from person-to-person transmission and, to a lesser degree, contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.
Even though the recent Nature study showed that well-ventilated areas have lower concentrations of airborne SARS-CoV-2, that doesn't necessarily mean it's significantly safer to dine outdoors than inside a restaurant.
"The hard science is on droplet transmission," Beauvais said. "In a restaurant, people take off their masks to eat and drink, and people can release droplets when they laugh, sneeze, or cough — even without being sick."
She adds that the risk of spreading and contracting the virus is on a continuum based on environment (crowded places may be more dangerous than spots where you can practice physical distancing) and people's attentiveness to things like handwashing and wearing masks.
Just because your state is opening up doesn't necessarily mean it's completely safe to resume all normal activities, says Dr. Matthew Heinz, hospitalist and internist at Tucson Medical Center.
"Follow the recommendations of public health officials and qualified scientists, not politicians or social media. The folks who have helped squash Ebola and H1N1 really know this stuff," Heinz said. "This is an insidious ninja virus that hasn't gone anywhere. It's still doing its job."
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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