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WHO finally acknowledges COVID-19 spreads via aerosols

In major news, the World Health Organisation has now accepted the aerosol spread of coronavirus - that we can breathe it to each other.

Fourteen months into the pandemic, the global health authority is now clearly stating that COVID is airborne, that it is not just spread via droplets. Experts say governments and health authorities must now urgently adopt strategies to reduce the risks of airborne transmission and more effectively fight the COVID pandemic.

This week the WHO released a new guidance note which finally admits that coronavirus can spread in small particles from one person to another when they cough, sneeze, speak, sing or breathe. Up to now, many in the WHO and elsewhere have resisted the scientific evidence around aerosol transmission, either dismissing it entirely or downplaying airborne spread as a key method of transmission. Last year, a WHO 'fact check tweet' categorically stated that COVID was not airborne! The guidance, updated on April 30, now states the following:

"The virus can spread from an infected person’s mouth or nose in small liquid particles when they cough, sneeze, speak, sing or breathe. These particles range from larger respiratory droplets to smaller aerosols.

  • Current evidence suggests that the virus spreads mainly between people who are in close contact with each other, typically within 1 metre (short-range). A person can be infected when aerosols or droplets containing the virus are inhaled or come directly into contact with the eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • The virus can also spread in poorly ventilated and/or crowded indoor settings, where people tend to spend longer periods of time. This is because aerosols remain suspended in the air or travel farther than 1 metre (long-range)."

In July last year, 239 scientists wrote to WHO pleading for action. The scientists, from 32 different countries and many different areas of science (including virology, aerosol physics and epidemiology),sent an open letter urging the WHO to change their advice. “We ignore COVID-19 airborne spread indoors at our peril,” the scientists said. (Gehanno JF, Bonneterre V, Andujar P, et al. How should data on airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 change occupational health guidelines? [Full letterOccup Environ Med July, online first; and The New Daily The big COVID debate dividing scientists and the WHO).  

According to an expert interviewed by the ABC, WHO's scientific thinking behind its insistence that COVID was spread through droplets dates back to a historical error made over 100 years ago, in 1910. However, the evidence that COVID is spread by aerosols has been growing, and the change of just a few words has already lead to public health authorities around the world to change advice regarding appropriate PPE, workplace practices and more.

Tragically, had WHO taken note of the aerosol scientists' letter last year and changed its advice, many infections would have been prevented, and millions of lives would have been saved. At the time they wrote to WHO there had been 200,000 deaths worldwide. Today there have been over 3,240,000 deaths. 

Listen to the full segment on ABC's PM here 

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