WHO Is Wrong About This One Huge Coronavirus Fact, 240 Scientists Say

Experts say the World Health Organization needs to address this key characteristic of coronavirus.

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With the coronavirus continuing to wreak havoc throughout the country, health officials are scrambling to look for solutions. Huge spikes in the number of new cases have been linked to people gathering at bars, restaurants, casinos, and other highly-trafficked indoor areas. And while this clearly indicates a widespread failure to practice social distancing, many experts say it is also potential evidence of a crucial characteristic of coronavirus—one they say the World Health Organization (WHO) still hasn't properly addressed: Coronavirus is airborne.

According to The New York Times, a group of 239 scientists from 32 countries have issued an open letter to the WHO with the urgent request to change their recommendations on how to protect against the coronavirus, citing the likelihood that the virus can be be transmitted through the air—absent of close contact with infected individuals—via small particles. Those behind the letter intend to publish it in a scientific journal this week.

Woman in a hospital bed during coronavirus
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Throughout the pandemic, WHO's official stance has been that coronavirus is spread largely though respiratory droplets "when a person is in close contact (within 1 meter) of someone with respiratory symptoms" such as coughing or sneezing—hence the need to wear masks and keep at least six feet apart from other people. WHO also acknowledge that airborne transmission of the virus is possible, but only during certain medical procedures—aerosol generating procedures (AGP), to be exact—that produce tiny microbes called aerosols. What they don't get behind, however, is the idea that coronavirus can be transmitted through the air outside of those specific circumstances.

"Especially in the last couple of months, we have been stating several times that we consider airborne transmission as possible but certainly not supported by solid or even clear evidence," Benedetta Allegranzi, MD, technical lead on infection control for the WHO, told The New York Times. "There is a strong debate on this."

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The debate referred to by Allegranzi has been an ongoing one. Essentially, WHO firmly differentiates between the respiratory droplets that infect when expelled in close contact to another person and the tiny aerosols that can only infect during one of the aforementioned AGPs. Scientists says the distinction is off the mark, as it is known that both droplets and aerosols are produced by patients, and not only as the result of an AGP.

"We've known since 1946 that coughing and talking generate aerosols," Linsey Marr, an expert in airborne transmission of viruses at Virginia Tech, said to The New York Times.

Experts say there are a variety of factors at play when it comes to WHO's refusal to budge—from politics to an outdated definition of "airborne transmission" to criteria that many believe to be "too rigid." Changing their stance would also mean changing how the organization operates, one member of WHO's infection prevention and control committee told The New York Times.

"I do get frustrated about the issues of airflow and sizing of particles, absolutely," Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said. "If we started revisiting airflow, we would have to be prepared to change a lot of what we do. I think it's a good idea, a very good idea, but it will cause an enormous shudder through the infection control society."

Even without "incontrovertible proof" that coronavirus can be transmitted in the air through inhaling aerosols, experts say WHO should assume the worst of the virus, use common sense, and then make the best recommendation possible. In overlooking the possibility that coronavirus is airborne, they run the risk of people and businesses not taking the proper precautions needed to prevent such a transmission.

"There is no incontrovertible proof that SARS-CoV-2 travels or is transmitted significantly by aerosols, but there is absolutely no evidence that it's not," Trish Greenhalgh, MD, a primary care doctor at the University of Oxford, told The New York Times. "So at the moment we have to make a decision in the face of uncertainty, and my goodness, it's going to be a disastrous decision if we get it wrong. So why not just mask up for a few weeks, just in case?" And for more on the second wave of coronavirus, These Are the Four New Epicenters of the Pandemic, Former FDA Chief Says.

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