COVID Variants Evolving to Improved Airborne Transmission

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A new study found that people infected with SARS-CoV-2 shed significant numbers of virus particles in their breath – and those infected with the Alpha variant put 43 to 100 times more virus into the air than people infected with the original strains. 

The researchers also found that loose-fitting cloth and surgical masks reduced the amount of virus that gets into the air around infected people by about half. The study was published in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

“Our latest study provides further evidence of the importance of airborne transmission,” said Dr Don Milton, Professor, Environmental Health, University of Maryland School of Public Health. “We know that the Delta variant circulating now is even more contagious than the Alpha variant. Our research indicates that the variants just keep getting better at traveling through the air, so we must provide better ventilation and wear tight-fitting masks, in addition to vaccination, to help stop spread of the virus.”

The numbers of airborne virus particles coming from infections with the Alpha variant (the dominant strain circulating at the time this study was conducted) was much more (18 times more) than could be explained by the increased amounts of virus picked up in nasal swabs and saliva. 
Doctoral student Jianyu Lai, a lead author of the study, explained: “We already knew that virus in saliva and nasal swabs was increased in Alpha variant infections. Virus from the nose and mouth might be transmitted by sprays of large droplets up close to an infected person. But, our study shows that the virus in exhaled aerosols is increasing even more.” These major increases in airborne virus from Alpha infections occurred before the arrival of the Delta variant, suggesting that the virus is evolving to have improved airborne transmission.

To test the efficacy of masks in reducing transmission, the researchers measured how much SARS-CoV-2 is exhaled into the air with and without wearing a cloth or surgical mask. They found that face coverings significantly reduced virus-laden particles in the air around the person with COVID by about 50%.

Co-author Dr Jennifer German said, “The take-home messages from this paper are that the coronavirus can be in your exhaled breath, is getting better at being in your exhaled breath, and using a mask reduces the chance of you breathing it on others.” This means that a layered approach to control measures (including improved ventilation, increased filtration, UV air sanitation, and tight-fitting masks, in addition to vaccination) is critical to protect people in public-facing jobs and indoor spaces.

Source: University of Maryland

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