Until November 2019, when the COVID-19 emerged in Wuhan, China, no one could have predicted the havoc it would soon impose on our everyday lives. There have been over 350,000 cases, putting countries across the globe in complete lockdown. The general advice encourages social distancing and good hand hygiene practice to prevent the transmission of the disease. Like other respiratory diseases, such as the flu, COVID-19 spreads by human-to-human contact, through tiny droplets released as an infected person coughs. One cough can release 3000 droplets, which land on nearby surfaces. Consequently, anyone who touches the contaminated surface is at risk of infection.
COVID-19 is a new virus and research is short. Other coronaviruses, such as SARS, which infected over 8000 people in 2002, can stay on metal, glass, and plastic for up to nine days. Coronaviruses are known to be particularly resilient in favourable environments, yet, they can be destroyed by using 62-71% alcohol disinfectants and washing hands with soap and water for twenty seconds.
However, there have been suggestions that it is not just contaminated surfaces we should be worried about – new research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, has found that COVID-19 can act as an aerosol, meaning the particles can be suspended in the air. The study found that COVID-19 could survive in droplets for up to three hours after being coughed out into the air, yet it loses the ability to infect in this time.
This new information does not mean we need to panic.
Dr Marr, a scientist involved in the New England study, said: “Based on physics, an aerosol released at a height of about six feet would fall to the ground after 34 minutes.” The virus disperses quickly in the air, so unless you are close (within six feet) to an infected person coughing, the amount of virus you are exposed to will be very low. Therefore, we should continue social distancing, and regularly disinfecting surfaces. Materials used for the treatment of COVID-19 in hospitals, such as ventilators, can generate aerosols, so it is important that health care workers wear N95 masks – so called because they filter out at least 95 percent of small particles (0.3 microns and bigger).
We should not be alarmed by the fact that COVID-19 can act as an aerosol since it’s unlikely this is the main method of transmission. If it was, we would be seeing much greater rates of infection. Certainly, we can limit its spread through actions like social distancing, washing our hands regularly, and avoiding contact with people who are unwell. Furthermore, disinfectants can remove the virus on any surface. By following such simple measures, it has never been easier to save the lives of others.