Coronavirus Could Be Airborne, Chinese Official Claims

Health officials in China are conflicted as to whether the deadly new coronavirus can spread through the air, with one expert saying 2019-nCoV could "in theory" be airborne.

Zeng Qun, the deputy head of the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau, told a press briefing on Saturday that the virus can be spread via direct transmission, which involves contact with the infected person. However, the China Daily newspaper reported Zeng also suggested the new member of the large coronavirus family—which includes infections like the common cold as well as SARS—is capable of aerosol transmission.

At a briefing held by the municipal government on the bug which has killed over 900 people, Zeng said: "Aerosol transmission refers to the mixing of the virus with droplets in the air to form aerosols, which causes infection after inhalation, according to medical experts."

As such, these types of diseases can linger in the air for long periods of time. Only a few diseases spread this way, including tuberculosis and measles.

Zeng advised members of the public to therefore be aware of this potential risk of passing on the virus when at family gatherings.

Shen Yinzhong, the medical director of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center, said 2019-nCoV could "in theory" spread through the air. However, Shen said more research is needed to confirm this, according to The New York Times which cited Shanghai's The Paper.

This view was questioned on Sunday, when researcher Feng Luzhao of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention told a press conference there is no evidence that the virus can form aerosols. Feng said, according to China Daily, that the most likely route of transmission appears to be direct, where a person breathes in the air of an infected person who has coughed or sneezed, which is different to airborne transmission. In addition, he said it is unlikely the virus can spread through fruit and vegetables.

Feng advised members of the public to open windows to ventilates spaces at least twice a day to lower the chance of the bug spreading.

Responding to Zeng's claims, Ian Mackay, a virologist at the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre and, told newsGP service on the website of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners: "At the moment this is just a pronouncement without supporting evidence.

"We have to be careful because we have seen numerous false starts and wild claims around this virus, which have all lacked any evidence, quality expert review, or slow and careful consideration before publication or any expertise associated with their original analysis."

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A woman wearing protective gear amid an outbreak of 2019-nCoV sits on the subway on February 10, 2020 in Beijing, China. Andrea Verdelli/Getty

Confirmation that 2019-nCoV is airborne would likely affect healthcare workers such as family physicians more than it would change how the bug is being tackled, McKay argued.

The new coronavirus first came to the attention of the authorities late year when workers at a wholesale seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei started falling ill. As such, very little is known about the nature of 2019-nCoV.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains on its website that most of what is known about 2019-nCoV comes from our understanding of other coronaviruses.
The CDC states: "Person-to-person spread is thought to occur mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread.

"These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. It's currently unclear if a person can get 2019-nCoV by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes."

To prevent the spread of 2019-nCoV, the CDC recommends people follow the general steps for acute respiratory infections.

These include washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, particularly after using the bathroom, before eating, and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. When sneezing or coughing, cover your mouth with a tissue or your elbow and throw away the tissue immediately. Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands. Stay at home if you are sick, and if you are healthy avoid those who are ill. Objects and surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected regularly using spray or wipes. The general public don't need to wear masks against 2019-nCoV, the CDC states.

The virus has spread to over 25 countries and territories, including the U.S. and Japan. But—as shown in the infographic by Statista below—it is not known to have reached Africa or South America. Around a third of all people diagnosed with the deadly new coronavirus outside of mainland China are on board a cruise ship quarantined off the coast of Japan.

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An infographic shows cases of 2019-nCoV around the workd. Statista