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COVID-19: WHO concedes airborne transmission of virus possible

"...The possibility of airborne transmission in public settings cannot be ruled out," WHO’s technical lead for infection prevention and control acknowledged.


The World Health Organization acknowledged “evidence emerging” of the airborne spread of the novel coronavirus on Tuesday, after a group of scientists urged the global body to update its guidance on how the respiratory disease’s transmission among people.

The WHO many times previously had dismissed such claims and said that COVID-19 spreads primarily through small droplets expelled from the nose and mouth of an infected person and quickly sink to the ground.

Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead on the COVID-19 pandemic at the WHO, stated in a news briefing – “We have been talking about the possibility of airborne transmission and aerosol transmission as one of the modes of transmission of COVID-19.”

The recent developments came after a group of researchers addressed an open letter to the Geneva-based agency, around 239 scientists from 32 countries outlined evidence that virus particles float and can infect people who breathe them in, the letter was published on Monday in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal as reported by The New York Times.

The scientists in the group had been persuading WHO for guidelines updation. “This is definitely not an attack on the WHO. It’s a scientific debate, but we felt we needed to go public because they were refusing to hear the evidence after many conversations with them. We wanted them to acknowledge the evidence,” said Jose Jimenez, a chemist at the University of Colorado who signed the paper, said in a telephone interview.

At a briefing in Geneva on Tuesday, the WHO’s technical lead for infection prevention and control- Benedetta Allegranzi, said there was emerging evidence of airborne transmission of the virus, but it was not definitive. “…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,” she said. “However, the evidence needs to be gathered and interpreted, and we continue to support this.”

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Jimenez said, there has been fierce discussion on the notion of aerosol transmission in the medical profession, and the stake of evidence was high as a major concern has been a fear of panic. “If people hear airborne, healthcare workers will refuse to go to the hospital, Or people will buy up all the highly protective N95 respirator masks, “and there will be none left for developing countries,” he said.

Jimenez also mentioned that the panel of the WHO assessing the airborne spread situation lacked representation from experts in aerosol transmission and was also not scientifically diverse.

Van Kerkhove said the WHO would publish a scientific brief summarising the state of knowledge on modes of transmission of the virus in the coming days. “A comprehensive package of interventions is required to be able to stop transmission,” she said.

“This includes not only physical distancing, it includes the use of masks where appropriate in certain settings, specifically where you can’t do physical distancing and especially for healthcare workers.”

Changes in the WHO’s probe of transmission risk could affect the current advisory of maintaining 1-meter (3.3 feet) of physical distancing. Governments, which rely on the agency for Corona transmission guidance policy, may also have to modify public health measures designed for curbing the spread of the virus.



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