Part 2 – Prove to me it’s airborne – well it’s the aerosol scientists that have done that…

This week’s blog is by Evonne T Curran (@EvonneTCurran) and is the second in a series exploring the evidence that covid is airborne.

Four types of evidence to consider here to find the dominant MoT – physics, Occam’s razor, the epidemic curve, and once again the Sherlock Holmes transmission MoT exclusion approach. Let’s apply these to person-to-person MoTs of SARS-CoV-2 via the three routes: airborne, droplets and/or contact. To begin my non-specialist subject, physics.

1. Physics

  • Respiratory aerosols are produced during all forms of respiratory activity by both infectious and non-infectious people.
  • Normal breathing has been shown to release up to 7200 aerosol particles per litre of exhaled air.
  • ≤100μm represents the largest particles that remain suspended in still air for >5 s (from a height of 1.5 m), that travel beyond 1 m from the infectious person, and can be inhaled.
  • Aerosols are small enough to linger in air, accumulate in poorly ventilated spaces, and be inhaled at both short and long ranges.
  • Most exhaled aerosols are <5 μm, and a large fraction are <1 μm for most respiratory activities, including those produced during breathing, talking, and coughing.
  • Droplets (>100 μm) are primarily produced from saliva in the oral cavity.
  • Although coughing can produce more aerosols in a short period of time, it is much more sporadic than continuous breathing and speaking, especially for infected individuals who display no clinical symptoms.
  • Pathogens predominate in the aerosols that are <5 μm.
  • In an animal model, the aerosol exposed route resulted in more severe disease despite receiving a dose lower than that used for the intra-nasal route.

In summary, the evidence from physics is that: we all produce aerosols, most of what we exhale is aerosols, any aerosols ≤100μm can be inhaled, most virus is in aerosols and in an animal model the airborne route requires a lower dose to cause infection. Thus, evidence from physics supports airborne transmission being the dominant route.

2. Occam’s razor

MoTWhat needs to happen
AirborneInfectious person exhales aerosols containing virus.Aerosols containing virus, in a sufficient load, are inhaled by a susceptible person.
Droplet:Infectious and symptomatic person exhales droplets containing virus.Droplets and virus land in sufficient numbers on the oral mucosa, nasal mucosa, or conjunctivae of a susceptible person within 2m of the infectious person.Requires the susceptible person to have glasses off, or mouth open or head tilted to get droplets into the nose (depending on height).
Contact directInfectious person whilst exhaling aerosols and droplets containing virus, contaminates their hands with a sufficient viable load of virus. The infectious person’s hands are then put directly in / on a susceptible person’s conjunctivae, mouth or in their nose], orThe infectious person transfers virus in a sufficient viable load to the susceptible person’s hands which then transfers (still in a sufficient viable load) to their own mouth, nose, or conjunctivae.
Contact indirectInfectious person exhales aerosols droplets containing virus, which in a sufficient viable load land on a surface or are deposited onto a surface via contaminated hands.The surface must retain a viable virus load until a susceptible person touches the contaminated surface and transfers a viable load of the virus to their hands.The susceptible person then transfers the virus, still in a sufficient viable load, to their mouth, nasal mucosa, or conjunctivae.

Occam’s razor, applied to the possible MoTs shows that the airborne route has the fewest events that need to happen for transmission to arise. [Note again, the physics shows most virus to be found in exhaled aerosols].

3. The epidemic curve

The pandemic’s epidemiological curve is of multiple millions of people affecting every continent of the planet. The epidemiological curve cannot be explained by droplets, and or a lot of dirty hands and/or a lot of dirty surfaces. The only MoT that can explain the epidemic curve of SARS-CoV-2 is airborne via inhalation of aerosols containing the virus.

This argument is best summarised by Wang et al 2021“If large droplets dominated transmission, distancing alone would have effectively suppressed the transmission of SARS-CoV-2.”

4. Transmission exclusion evidence (Sherlock Holmes)

If people are within droplet range when transmission occurs, and they either do or do not touch items or each other, no MoT can be excluded – so the important thing is to omit these scenarios when examining possible MoTs.  

Thus, physics, Occam’s razor, the epidemic curve and transmission exclusion evidence has eliminated everything apart from airborne as the dominant route. Ergo, the cumulative evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is spread mainly via the airborne route.

Still think it’s droplets? Present your evidence, not your beliefs.

Author: Alison Twycross PhD RN

Chair - Supporting Healthcare Heroes UK; Editor-in-Chief - Evidence Based Nursing; Former Deputy Dean and Professor of Children’s Nursing

3 thoughts on “Part 2 – Prove to me it’s airborne – well it’s the aerosol scientists that have done that…”

  1. Excellent blog.
    Together with the previous “part 1” the author amasses the evidence of airborne transmission. Very handy to have this all collated and in one place as we go into the Public Inquiry.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: