As the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic outbreak continues to spread like wildfire, new studies show that the novel coronavirus can travel further than six feet, kicking off concerns among the populace about the effectiveness of practical social distancing and leading to public health experts considering to draft new guidelines.
A new study published last week at the BMJ medical journal shows that we may now need new social distancing rules to follow as the team of infectious-disease experts from the Oxford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who conducted the study, have argued that the six-feet rule is based on outdated empirical observations and research on entirely different viruses.
For context, the six-feet separation rule is actually derived from the research by a German biologist, Carl Flügge, way back in the 1800s.
Flügge had, in his observations, suggested that six-feet was the maximum distance that microbe-containing droplets could travel. Eventually, this became conventional wisdom and was applied to attempt to evade every viral epidemic that humankind has known since.
However, as we know with the help of cutting-edge scientific rigour in the 21st century, that Flügge had, in fact, missed several certain key things in his hypothesis that were practically impossible for a scientist of that era to observe.
Specifically, his hypothesis missed father-flung particles invisible to the naked eye – in particular, the tiny droplets of bodily fluid and virus that float on the air. We have a new name for these now — aerosols.
Now aerosols are a tricky little thing. Airborne coronavirus is not definitively proven, but impending scientific research into the novel coronavirus and its mutations suggest that the virus may have travelled among people scores of feet away during super-spreading situations. The only logical explanation derived from this? That novel coronavirus may just have started transmitting itself via airborne aerosols.
Not just that. Distance may never even solve the problem of aerosols, according to University of Colorado aerosol expert Jose-Luis Jimenez, who was quoted as saying so by The Washington Post. “Distance alone will never solve the aerosol problem. If you are in the same room, you can get infected,” he said.
To date, the WHO has hesitated to classify the virus as airborne, while acknowledging that airborne transmission of the virus can occur in some circumstances, such as when medical procedures generate small, virus-containing aerosols.
It is already known that coronavirus can prove to be far more dangerous when lingering in smaller respiratory particles in the air (microdroplets) and infect people. Studies have also now shown that SARS-CoV-2 taken from microdroplets, defined as under five microns, can replicate in lab conditions.
This exacerbates a fear that researchers had already been having for a while, the hypothesis that that normal speaking and breathing, not just coughing and sneezing, are responsible for spreading COVID-19 and that infectious doses of the virus can travel distances far greater than the six feet (two meters) urged by social distancing guidelines.
a group of 239 scientists in 32 countries had penned an open letter to the Geneva-based agency, outlining evidence that they say shos floating virus particles can infect people who breathe them in.
The letter was published on Monday in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal. In the letter, the scientists had also urged WHO to update its guidance on how the respiratory disease passes between people, in light of the newly emerging evidence.
Following this, WHO acknowledged the fact and said, at a press conference, that they must be “open to this evidence.”
“We acknowledge that there is emerging evidence in this field, as in all other fields regarding the COVID-19 virus and pandemic,” Benedetta Allegranzi, WHO’s the technical lead for infection prevention and control, said.
However, to date, six feet of social distancing remains the standard public norm.