LONDON: A team of UK scientists is set to discover how long COVID-19 can survive in airborne particles.
In an experiment slated to commence on Monday, researchers at the University of Bristol will test whether the virus is at its most virulent in respiratory droplets, or whether it remains active over significant periods in tiny aerosol particles.
COVID-19 is known to be present in droplets produced from the mouth and nose from people coughing, sneezing, talking or just breathing.
But these remain airborne, and therefore active, for a much shorter period of time than aerosol particles before dropping to the floor.
This is the reasoning behind multiple governments’ enforcing social-distancing measures of 2 meters, among other things.
But were the virus able to survive in much smaller aerosol particles, it is possible that it could travel greater distances — carried by air currents and ventilation systems — and infect more people, rendering social-distancing measures less effective.
The theory has gained traction as examples from across the world of groups of people being infected despite observing social-distancing measures, or doing so in poorly ventilated spaces.
Prof. Jonathan Reid, who is leading the Bristol team, told The Guardian newspaper: “We know that when bacteria or viruses become airborne in respiratory droplets they very quickly dry down and can lose viability, so that’s an important step to understand when assessing the role of airborne transmission in COVID-19.”
Allen Haddrell, a scientist at the University of Bristol, said: “We can effectively mimic a cold, wet British winter — or even a hot, dry summer in Saudi Arabia — to look at how these dramatic differences in environmental conditions affect how long the virus remains infectious while suspended in air.”
Results will possibly ready by the end of the week for external scrutiny by the broader scientific community.
Despite excitement surrounding the experiment, some scientists have urged caution, especially regarding the scope of practical applications that could result from it.
“I think the science is fine, and will show the principal that you can modify the environment to reduce the survivability of the virus,” said Dr. Julian Tang, a consultant virologist at Leicester Royal Infirmary.
“But the applicability might be tricky, depending on the environmental factors they identify. You’re not going to sit in a theater or cinema if the temperature is 35 degrees and the humidity is 80 percent.”