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A group of scientists is set to publish an open letter to the World Health Organization (WHO) claiming the health body is not taking the airborne nature of COVID-19 seriously enough.
The letter will, according to The New York Times, claim that the novel coronavirus is airborne, meaning it can linger in the air long enough to infect many people.
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The letter will also reportedly accuse the WHO of failing to issue appropriate warnings about the risk of being infected by coronavirus via airborne transmission. The scientists, who plan to publish their letter in Clinical Infectious Diseases, will call on the United Nations health agency to revise its recommendations.
Handwashing and social distancing 'insufficient'
Signed by 239 researchers from 32 countries, including experts in virology, aerosol physics, flow dynamics, exposure and epidemiology, medicine, and building engineering, the letter claims that added precautions should be taken to mitigate the threat of COVID-19.
"Numerous health authorities currently focus on handwashing, maintaining social distancing, and droplet precautions," Professor Lidia Morawska, director of the International Air Quality and Health Laboratory, said in a Queensland University of Technology press release.
"Handwashing and social distancing are appropriate, but [are] insufficient to provide protection from virus-carrying respiratory microdroplets released into the air by infected people," she added.
In their letter, the scientists highlight multiple studies that demonstrate that aerosols can hang in the air for long periods of time and float distances of dozens of feet.
This means that poorly ventilated rooms, trains, and other confined spaces can be dangerous, even if people follow the commonly implemented one-meter social distancing rule.
Mitigating the threat of airborne transmission
The group of scientists claims that there are three main methods for mitigating the threat of airborne transmission:
Firstly, governments and organizations should provide "sufficient and effective ventilation, particularly in public buildings, workplace environments, schools, hospitals, and aged care homes".
Secondly, they should supplement "general ventilation with airborne infection controls such as local exhaust, high-efficiency air filtration, and germicidal ultraviolet lights."
Lastly, people should avoid overcrowding, "particularly in public transport and public buildings."
Pushback from the WHO
The WHO has responded to the claims by telling the Los Angeles Times that the 239 researchers had based their assertions on lab experiments instead of field evidence.
Dr. Benedetta Allegranzi, a WHO expert on infection prevention, said that airborne transmission “would have resulted in many more cases and even more rapid spread of the virus.” As such, the UN agency has “not judged the existing evidence sufficiently convincing to consider airborne transmission as having an important role in COVID-19 spread.”
The scientists behind the open letter do stress that if their findings are true, nothing has changed about the coronavirus, it will have been airborne all along. Knowing that it is will simply allow us to better defend populations against widespread infection.