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What Scientists Know About Airborne Transmission of the New Coronavirus

Aerosol experts, from engineers to doctors, weigh in on the ability of tiny droplets to transmit the virus that causes COVID-19


August 13, 2020

A customer talks to a waiter in a mask while eating his meal at a table divided with transparent panels in Bangalore, India. (Photo by MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the past few months, an increasing number of scientists, clinicians, and engineers have called for greater recognition that aerosols, in addition to larger droplets can transmit the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. While the difference is literally miniscule, acknowledging this route of transmission would result in significant changes in how the public can bring an end to the global pandemic. In the near term, it would inform social distancing and mask wearing recommendations from local governments, and in the long term, engineers and architects will need to rethink ventilation and air filtration in the design of everything from schools to cruise ships.

Aerosols are microscopic particles that can remain airborne for hours, and carry pathogens up to dozens of meters, under the right conditions. Scientists who study airborne infection generally consider aerosols to be particles smaller in diameter than five micrometers, or 0.005 millimeters, less than one-tenth the width of a human hair. Larger droplets, commonly referred to as "droplets," expelled by sneezing or coughing tend to fall to the ground or other surfaces rather quickly, while aerosols hang around for minutes to hours. How long a virus can remain airborne depends on the size of the droplet containing it. "That determines everything about how far it can travel, how long it can stay airborne before it falls to the ground," says Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.


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