COVID-19 Airborne Contagion — Can you catch Coronavirus from the Air?

COVID-19 researchers have been working hard to determine how the disease spreads. As the old saying goes, to defeat your enemy, you must first know your enemy! Airborne transmission of coronavirus has been a pressing concern for many experts. Water droplets that come from breathing or coughing are relatively short lived, but airborne transmission implies that the disease will linger in the air long after an infected person leaves an area. Airborne contagion is also concerning because it makes the disease much more difficult to trace.

A new preliminary study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the viability of COVID-19 (and a related virus) in the air and on different surfaces. To study airborne viability, coronavirus was dispersed as an aerosol, and the air was tested over time to see if the virus could still be detected. The researchers found that a significant amount of virus could be found even after 3 hours. This strongly suggests that airborne transmission is possible.

The authors also looked at virus viability on surfaces like metal and plastic over the course of three days. The viruses seemed to be quite stable on plastics, and was detectable after a full 72 hours. COVID-19 could survive for approximately two days on stainless steel, one day on cardboard, and about 8 hours on copper. These results were in-line with what was seen for the related virus.

This study reaffirms the importance of stringent hygiene measures most people are already practicing. Social distancing will help protect you from catching COVID by airborne transmission. You should also avoid touching surfaces in public; almost everything is either stainless steel, plastic, or cardboard, and therefore could be contaminated, even if it hasn’t been touched in hours. Finally, hand washing is essential to protect yourself from virus you might have been exposed to from touching surfaces.

It should be noted that this study is using tissue cultures and a lab environment to conduct these tests. The amount of virus spread in the air by an infected individual may be much different than the amounts tested in this study. In addition, the authors did not test the role of temperature, sunlight, or humidity on virus viability (see article on weather and COVID-19). Still, the result probably gives a relatively accurate picture of how long the virus can survive under ideal conditions — and reinforces the importance of rigorous hand washing and social distancing.

This is part of a series on preliminary research that relate to the COVID-19 pandemic. As this covers papers that are not finalized in an area of study that is evolving rapidly, it is possible that some of this research will end up being modified, and should be taken as such. Other articles in this series cover hydroxychloroquine, weather’s effect on COVID-19, and the use of masks.

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