WHO admits airborne transmission possibility in guidelines update: The implications of the move, explained
It has been over a year since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a fiery debate over how the invisible virus travels persists. But the World Health Organisation, earlier this week, has finally admitted, via its latest scientific brief, that the possibility of COVID-19 spreading in an indoor or poorly-ventilated setting does exist. “Current evidence suggests that the virus spreads mainly between people who are in close contact with each other, typically within 1 metre (short-range). A person can be infected when aerosols or droplets containing the virus are inhaled or come directly into contact with the eyes, nose, or mouth,” read the updated guidelines.“The virus can also spread in poorly ventilated and/or crowded indoor settings, where people tend to spend longer periods of time. This is because aerosols remain suspended in the air or travel farther than 1 metre (long-range),” it added. The latest update is another reflecting the improved, yet still incomplete, understanding we have over how the COVID-19 spreads. It is worth noting that, during the initial weeks and months of the outbreak, the WHO did not even advise mask-wearing for those individuals who had not been infected with the virus. Since then, we have come to learn quite conclusively that mask-wearing and social distancing protocols are highly effective in reducing the virus' transmissibility.But questions will be asked why the WHO has taken so long to admit to the possibility that airborne transmission may have been a greater threat than it has previously claimed. The world's foremost medical body was pushed in July 2020 by a group of international health experts to revise its guidelines and declare COVID-19 as an airborne disease. While the WHO did note, at the time, that the possibility could not be ruled out, it later stated that the evidence of airborne transmission remained inconclusive. The latest update though arrives quickly on the heels of a new assessment published in The Lancet which concluded that there was strong evidence to indicate that the primary mode of COVID-19 transmission was airborne. In the study, the researchers listed ten explicit reasons for airborne transmission ranging from the virus' transmission patterns at super-spreader events to increasing evidence that asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic patients were responsible for nearly 60 per cent of all transmission globally. Another MIT study also found that the widely-touted six-foot social distancing rule may no longer be valid. RELATED NEWS Higher airborne pollen concentrations correlated with increased SARS-CoV-2 infection rates Coronavirus can be transiently air-borne; but COVID-19 preventive measures can keep you safe: CCMB Instances of airborne and community spread of Covid-19 in West Bengal, says Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee The possibility of the virus having the capacity to travel longer distances than previously thought has significant implications as far as preventative measures are concerned. It was previously believed that virus droplets could only travel short distances (under a metre) before falling to the ground as a result of gravity. If indeed, the virus is airborne, greater emphasis will now need to be placed on the importance of ventilation i.e. keeping windows open while in indoor settings. The central government has also recently drawn attention to the need to wear masks indoors even if an infected member of a household is isolated in a specific room. What's more, the updated guidelines also have a bearing on whether gatherings like concerts, movie screenings, etc ought to take place with the current avatar of safety protocols prescribed. If the aerosolised virus can travel large distances via air currents, conventional social distancing regulations may no longer serve as effective measures.