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Scientists Urge WHO To Update Guidance On Airborne Transmission Of The Coronavirus

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For months, the World Health Organization has said that the coronavirus spreads mainly through small but heavy droplets, droplets expelled by someone coughing or sneezing or even just speaking, and then they fall quickly to the ground. Now an international chorus of scientists is urging the WHO to update that guidance. More than 200 have signed an open letter warning about possible airborne transmission from much smaller particles, particles that can linger in the air. Josh Santarpia is one of those scientists. He is a microbiologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. I asked him, what exactly should the WHO guidance say?

JOSHUA SANTARPIA: What we are asking them to do is consider the fact that this coronavirus at least has the potential to be spread in an airborne fashion and that we should be doing something to protect against that.

KELLY: What evidence can you point to that that is, in fact, the case?

SANTARPIA: So there's a pretty large and growing body of evidence to suggest that everything from sort of the anecdotal case reports of transmissions in singing groups and at restaurants to some more epidemiological studies looking at the impact of universal mask wear in countries worldwide down to a number of reports of RNA contained in very small particles, both from China and I believe Singapore, and then ongoing work in my lab that has from the beginning identified coronavirus RNA in air and recently - although, it's not out yet - our ability to cultivate some of those aerosols.

KELLY: You're talking about - is your lab working on being able to grow the virus from airborne particles?

SANTARPIA: Yes.

KELLY: And that is - what? - it's not published yet, but it looks as though, yes, you will be able to do that?

SANTARPIA: It's been submitted, but it's not publicly available yet.

KELLY: If this is true, if the virus really is airborne, what does that mean? How worrying is that? What does it mean in terms of being able to contain and control the spread?

SANTARPIA: You know, I think that's the biggest barrier to the acceptance of most of the public health organizations. But I think we're doing a lot already. In terms of, like, having it under control, I mean, I think you kind of see where we're at with that. And admitting what something is or isn't doesn't change what it is or isn't. And I think we go a lot farther in being able to do something about it by accepting the data for what it is.

KELLY: Although this does seem like kind of a game changer in the sense that it suggests indoor spaces are even more problematic and risky than we had understood. I mean, the guidance for a while has been if you can, stay outside. It's because of airflow and other factors that makes it - that slows the spread. But, I mean, this - if true that the virus is aerosolized, does that make it even less likely we're ever going to get back to offices and work and life as we know it?

SANTARPIA: I don't think so. I think it just means that we have to be proactive about the changes we make, right? I mean, you know, there are regulations about airflow in offices now. Maybe they need to be updated, same thing with, you know, airplanes and gyms and other situations. You know, maybe we do have to be more careful about how we think about infection control and all sorts of public places and - but we're never going to do that unless we start accepting things for what they are.

KELLY: Understanding you don't speak for the WHO, what is your sense of why they are reluctant to embrace the guidance that you would like to see them embrace?

SANTARPIA: I think it's exactly the comment that you made initially. It's like, doesn't it make it harder to contain? And I think there's a there's a real concern about spreading a lot of fear and panic among people. But I think we just have to get over that, you know, as a society and move on with living our lives in a world where this is really possible, where it's been possible now for many months.

KELLY: I mean, to be clear, the WHO is not saying airborne transmission is impossible. They're just saying they haven't yet seen solid evidence.

SANTARPIA: Yeah. I - well, I guess I disagree with the existence of solid evidence. I think there's some good studies out there. I think that if people are waiting for the silver bullet, there's no silver bullet. There might be, you know, a whole slew of evidence that you have to put together to say, yeah, this is really a factor. I still think it's difficult to say how much of a factor it is. But if you ignore it altogether, then you don't really make any progress.

KELLY: Yeah. How unusual is this, by the way, to have more than 200 scientists writing an open letter to the World Health Organization basically saying we think you're wrong?

SANTARPIA: It's pretty unprecedented.

KELLY: You ever signed a letter like this before?

SANTARPIA: I've never signed a letter like this before, but I didn't hesitate this time.

KELLY: That is Josh Santarpia, associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Thanks again.

SANTARPIA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.