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WHO finally acknowledges the coronavirus airborne transmission risk

Published Jul 8th, 2020 10:12PM EDT
Coronavirus Airborne Transmission
Image: Kyodo via AP Images

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  • Coronavirus airborne transmission is evident, 239 researchers said recently, urging the World Health Organization to acknowledge the risk.
  • The organization said in response that there’s “emerging evidence” that the virus can spread via the air, not just the droplets that result from coughing, sneezing, and talking.
  • But the WHO’s wording seems to suggest that it isn’t going to change its COVID-19 transmission guidelines to take into account measures that can reduce airborne spread.

The World Health Organization (WHO) just acknowledged the increasing evidence that shows the coronavirus is spreading via air. The move came in response to an open letter from 239 scientists who urged the organization to acknowledge the risk of COVID-19 spread in indoor settings that are poorly ventilated. There’s growing evidence to support the idea that the droplets people eject when sneezing, coughing, or talking can linger in the air and reach other people in the same room. A report earlier this week from The New York Times explained the WHO is reluctant to change its point of view on coronavirus transmission, as officials still say droplets are the primary way COVID-19 spreads, and advocate for frequent handwashing as a way to reduce the risk.

The WHO responded to increased pressure from scientists and the media that covered their coronavirus airborne transmission claims without actually doing anything to alter its guidelines for fighting the pandemic. The New York Times report did say that airborne transmission would have several implications for the way health officials are fighting the pandemic, as authorities could mandate changes that could mitigate the risk. Face masks could be required in all indoor spaces. Changes to ventilation could also be enforced as a result.

“We acknowledge that there is emerging evidence in this field, as in all other fields regarding the Covid-19 virus and pandemic and therefore we believe that we have to be open to this evidence and understand its implications regarding the modes of transmission and also regarding the precautions that need to be taken,” said WHO Technical Lead for Infection Prevention and Control Dr. Benedetta Alleganzi during a press briefing on Tuesday.

Maria Van Kerkove explained that many of the signatories of the letter are engineers, “which adds to growing knowledge about the importance of ventilation, which we feel is very important.” Van Kerkove is an infectious disease epidemiologist with the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program.

“We have been talking about the possibility of airborne transmission and aerosol transmission as one of the modes of transmission of Covid-19, as well as droplet,” she said. “We’ve looked at fomites. We’ve looked at fecal-oral. We’ve looked at mother to child. We’ve looked at animal to human, of course as well.”

“These are fields of research that are really growing and for which there is some evidence emerging but is not definitive,” Alleganzi said. “And therefore, the possibility of airborne transmission in public settings, especially in very specific conditions crowded, closed, poorly ventilated settings that have been described cannot be ruled out. However, the evidence needs to be gathered and interpreted.”

The WHO has no new COVID-19 guidelines to announce at this time, but the agency is working on a scientific brief summarizing the knowledge about coronavirus transmission. The paper should be released in the coming weeks, per CNN. But the WHO seems to be resistant to implementing any meaningful change in the near future, considering the way it worded its remarks about airborne transmission. The WHO last updated its coronavirus advice for the public on June 4th, and the materials do not detail the possibility of contracting COVID-19 from the air.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.