In shift, WHO acknowledges ’emerging evidence’ of airborne virus spread

239 international scientists say infectious particles could travel well beyond 2 meters, upending accepted understanding of coronavirus transmission

A doctor in a protective suit takes a nasal swab for a coronavirus test (iStock)
A doctor in a protective suit takes a nasal swab for a coronavirus test (iStock)

The World Health Organization on Tuesday acknowledged that there was “emerging evidence” of airborne transmission of the new coronavirus, after an international group of scientists said it could spread far beyond two meters.

“We acknowledge that there is emerging evidence in this field… therefore we believe that we have to be open to this evidence and understand its implications regarding the modes of transmission and also regarding the precautions that need to be taken,” the WHO’s Prof. Benedetta Allegranzi told a virtual press briefing.

The two-meter physical distancing guideline has been a major factor in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 538,000 people and infected over 11.6 million since the outbreak emerged in China last December.

However, the new coronavirus can spread through the air far beyond two meters, a group of 239 international scientists said Monday.

Landlord Lee Watts cleans a plastic ‘sneeze screen’ positioned at the bar as a precaution against spreading the novel coronavirus inside The Falcon pub in the village of Rotherwick, west of London, on June 26, 2020 (Adrian DENNIS / AFP)

When an infected person exhales, they expel droplets. Droplets under five micrometres in size can become suspended in the air for several hours and travel up to tens of metres, they said.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, said the UN health agency was producing a scientific brief consolidating the growing knowledge around transmission.

“It is important that what we know fits into the guidance that we have,” she said. “We will be issuing our brief in the coming days, and that will outline everything that we have in this area.”

World taken hostage: Tedros

Meanwhile, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the pandemic was showing no signs of slowing down, as 400,000 new cases were reported over the weekend.

It took 12 weeks for the world to reach the first 400,000 coronavirus cases.

“The outbreak is accelerating and we’ve clearly not reached the peak of the pandemic,” Tedros said.

“While the number of deaths appears to have leveled off globally, in reality some countries have made significant progress in reducing the number of deaths, while in other countries deaths are still on the rise.”

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks in front of supporters on April 19, 2020, in Brasilia. (Sergio Lima/AFP)

The virus has “taken the world hostage,” he concluded.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro — who caused huge controversy for repeatedly flouting containment measures and minimizing the risk of the virus — announced on Tuesday he had tested positive for the virus.

The WHO sent him their best wishes for a speedy and full recovery.

“It brings home for us all the reality of this virus: No one is special,” said the WHO’s emergencies director, Michael Ryan.

“Whether we’re prince or pauper, we’re equally vulnerable,” he said.

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