Covid is airborne. What does it mean? WHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan explains

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Covid is airborne. What does it mean? WHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan explains

Ever since a group of over 230 scientists from 32 countries across the world claimed they have evidence to suggest that Covid-19 is airborne, and urged the World Health Organisation (WHO) to update its guidelines, there have been growing concerns among people about this development and the risks involved.

To clear doubts about this new finding on Covid-19, WHO’s chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan spoke to India Today TV’s Consulting Editor Rajdeep Sardesai in an exclusive interview.

Asked about the WHO’s stand on whether Covid-19 is airborne or not, Dr Swaminathan said the virus can survive in the air and transmit, but in a very limited environment.



She said when we speak, shout, sing or even breathe, there are a lot of droplets that come out of our mouth, and these droplets are of different sizes. The larger droplets fall on to the ground within 1-2 meters. This is why there is so much emphasis on maintaining distance so that these droplets can be prevented from directly transmitting from one person to another.

“But there are also smaller droplets that are less than 5 microns in size. They are called aerosols and since they are small in size, they can stay a bit longer in the air as they take a little longer to settle on the ground. These droplets can be moved around by gusts of winds etc. Therefore, these particles could be inhaled by other people who are in the vicinity. This form of transmission of Covid-19 can be called as airborne transmission,” Dr Swaminathan said.

She however said this form of airborne transmission is very different from airborne transmission of viruses like measles, “which are truly airborne in the sense that they spread primarily in the air”.

“I think this distinction between the two types of airborne transmissions should be kept in mind,” she said.

Elaborating on these tiny droplets, she said since they are very small, they could remain in the air for 10-15 minutes after coming out from someone’s mouth.

“If you happen to enter that space and breathe that air, you may get infected because the tiny droplets containing the virus are still in the air,” she said.

Asked specifically if the WHO still maintains that Covid-19 is primarily transmitted from person-to-person through small droplets, and that it is only in a limited environment that there could be an airborne transmission, Dr Swaminathan said this stand is true.

She said the airborne transmission occurs in “special situations”. “We don’t say it doesn’t happen. But it does not mean that since Covid-19 is airborne, it means it is everywhere and nothing can be done. If it was truly airborne like measles, in the sense that it was everywhere, all of us would have been infected by now,” Dr Swaminathan said.

She added that majority of the transmission occurs from droplets and if we can control that through distancing and other means, we can prevent most Covid-19 cases.

On Tuesday, the WHO acknowledged that there is emerging evidence of the airborne spread of Covid-19.

“We have been talking about the possibility of airborne transmission and aerosol transmission as one of the modes of transmission of Covid-19,” Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead on the Covid-19 pandemic at the WHO, told a news briefing.

The WHO has previously said the virus that causes the Covid-19 respiratory disease spreads primarily through small droplets expelled from the nose and mouth of an infected person that quickly sink to the ground.

“…The possibility of airborne transmission in public settings – especially in very specific conditions, crowded, closed, poorly ventilated settings that have been described, cannot be ruled out,” Kerkhove has said.

Meanwhile, speaking about chances of developing herd immunity against Covid19, Dr Swaminathan said at it is very difficult and most of the world’s population is still susceptible to Covid-19.

“Achieving herd immunity is going to take a very long time. Secondly, it is going to come at a cost in terms of loss of lives, illness in the community and prolonged lockdowns,” she said.


Covid is airborne. What does it mean? WHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan explains


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