The World Health Organization acknowledges there is “evidence emerging” of the airborne spread of the coronavirus — after a group of more than 200 scientists urged the UN agency to update its guidance on how the respiratory illness passes between people.
“We have been talking about the possibility of airborne transmission and aerosol transmission as one of the modes of transmission of COVID-19,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the pandemic, said Tuesday, Reuters reported.
The Geneva-based agency previously said the bug spreads primarily through small droplets expelled from the nose and mouth of an infected person that quickly sink to the ground.
But in an open letter to the WHO, published Monday in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal, 239 scientists from 32 countries outlined evidence they said shows floating viral particles can infect people who inhale them.
Because those smaller particles can linger in the air, the scientists had urged the agency to update its guidance.
“We wanted them to acknowledge the evidence,” said University of Colorado chemist Jose Jimenez, who signed the paper.
“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,” he told Reuters.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, center, Director General of the World Health OrganizationAP
Benedetta Allegranzi, the WHO’s technical lead for infection prevention and control, said Tuesday that evidence was emerging of airborne transmission of the disease — but noted that 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.”
Jimenez said there has been strong opposition historically in the medical profession to the idea of aerosol transmission, citing a fear of panic as a main concern.
“If people hear airborne, health-care workers will refuse to go to the hospital,” he told Reuters, adding that people would buy all the highly protective N95 respirator masks, “and there will be none left for developing countries.”
He added that the agency’s panel examining the evidence on airborne transmission was not scientifically diverse, and lacked representation from experts in aerosol transmission.
Any change in the agency’s assessment of risk of transmission could affect its advice on keeping 3.3 feet of physical distancing, according to Reuters.
Van Kerkhove said the WHO would soon be publishing a scientific brief summarizing the state of knowledge on modes of transmission.
“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 health-care workers.”
On Tuesday, the Trump administration officially withdrew the US from the WHO, a senior administration official told The Post.