Angry Citizens Pressure the World Health Organization to Fully Recognize COVID’s Airborne Spread
A new citizen movement is gathering steam to try to convince the influential World Health Organization to change its messaging about how the coronavirus is transmitted.
The new petition "COVID is Airborne" (www.covidisairborne.org) started in early November and has approximately 3,000 signatures. During this particularly dangerous acceleration of the pandemic, the petition's backers allege that the WHO is failing the public with mixed messaging and thus inadvertently fueling the wildfire of transmission.
"Early on in the pandemic, [WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus] said that coronavirus is airborne, but then in March, WHO tweeted that COVID-19 is not airborne, saying that it is primarily transmitted via droplets that are too heavy to hang in the air," says petition co-creator Jessica Bassett Allen.
The organization's late March messaging, still available on social media, is a digital graphic saying, "FACT CHECK: COVID-19 is NOT Airborne".
Screenshot of WHO's Tweet from March 28, 2020 that is still published.
The petition asks for a course correct: "We, citizens of the world, request that the World Health Organization (WHO) recognize the compelling scientific evidence that SARS-CoV-2 spreads by aerosol transmission ("airborne") and urge the WHO to immediately develop and initiate clear recommendations to enable people to protect themselves."
In the vacuum of the WHO's inaction, aerosol scientists around the world scrambled to raise awareness of what they saw as a grave error.
"Almost immediately after that [March 28] announcement, we formed a group of 239 scientists from many countries and disciplines to convince them that they should acknowledge that there is airborne transmission, but we find that they are totally dead set against it," says Dr. Jose Jimenez, a chemistry professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has studied aerosols for 20 years. He supports the citizen petition.
In a letter to the WHO back in July, he and his colleagues wrote: "Studies by the signatories and other scientists have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that viruses are released during exhalation, talking, and coughing in microdroplets small enough to remain aloft in air and pose a risk of exposure at distances beyond 1–2 m from an infected individual."
The scientists have also gone direct to the public with their findings: They published a comprehensive Google doc with detailed answers to many people's frequently asked questions about how to protect themselves, addressing issues ranging from the best masks and air filters to how to deal with passing someone outdoors and much more.
It's worth noting that the CDC has now modified its COVID FAQ to include airborne transmission as a "less common way" for the virus to spread. This update took place after the CDC stated in September that it is "possible" the virus spreads via airborne transmission – only to reverse course and remove the language from its website several days later. The CDC's website now states that some viruses, including SARS-Cov-2, "may be able to infect people who are further than 6 feet away from the person who is infected or after that person has left the space."
Basset Allen notes that after the scientists' open letter, the WHO "added ventilation to public communications about how to prevent infection, but they haven't explained why."
When contacted, a WHO representative had no specific comment and shared its late March announcement as well as its latest guidelines on transmission. In part, its statement says, "Current evidence suggests that the main way the virus spreads is by respiratory droplets among people who are in close contact with each other. Aerosol transmission can occur in specific settings, particularly in indoor, crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces, where infected person(s) spend long periods of time with others, such as restaurants, choir practices, fitness classes, nightclubs, offices and/or places of worship. More studies are underway to better understand the conditions in which aerosol transmission is occurring outside of medical facilities where specific medical procedures, called aerosol-generating procedures, are conducted."
A forceful and clear message acknowledging the evidence could make it easier to standardize school and office ventilation, petitioners argue.
Aerosol scientist Jimenez was dismayed by the WHO's response.
"The first part is an error in my opinion," he says. "Current evidence suggests that the main way the virus spreads is inhalation of aerosols.…WHO is way behind, unfortunately.
"The second part is incomplete," Jimenez continues. "Aerosol transmission can happen in those indoor crowded low-ventilation spaces. But if aerosols can accumulate under those conditions and cause infection, they must be extremely infective in close proximity when talking, since they are much more concentrated there. Just like talking close to a smoker you would inhale much more smoke (which is an aerosol) than if you were in the same room, but let's say 10 or 15 feet away."
He adds, "The WHO and others are making the assumption that if this goes through the air, then everyone who is infected is putting a lot of virus into the air at all times, but we know that's wrong: People are infectious for a short period of time before and during their symptoms. In China, they have measured how much virus comes out of people, and they see that the emission is sporadic: The virus can come out in millions of viral [particles] per hour, but it doesn't happen all the time."
The petition's co-creator, Basset Allen, says that her life experience showed her the best way to make a change. "My involvement with this effort is entirely personal," she says. "I was first introduced to HIV treatment activism as a college student and what I learned about campaigning and power has been relevant in almost every other project I've worked on since then. HIV activism taught me that everyday people can win big, life-saving policy changes if they build expertise and work strategically to push decision makers."
The petition and its advocates argue that the WHO's mixed messaging is causing real harm. For instance, a forceful and clear message acknowledging the evidence could make it easier to standardize school and office ventilation, they argue. Anecdotally, some schools have refused to install HEPA filtration in their classrooms due to a lack of specific guidance from health agencies. (Note: The CDC now recommends improving central air filtration and considering the use of portable HEPA filters in classrooms.)
As the holidays approach, a clear and unified message from all influential health agencies would also help people understand why it is still important to wear masks while physical distancing, especially indoors.
"Personally, I cheered when I heard President-Elect Biden mention ventilation upgrades in schools during the first 10 minutes of his October town hall event, and again in the second debate," Basset Allen says. "Unfortunately, we're still more than two months away from the Biden administration taking over the U.S. COVID-19 response and we have to do absolutely everything we can right now to save as many lives as possible. Increasing awareness of airborne transmission and mitigation strategies can't wait. WHO can use its power to help close that gap, here and around the world."
The field of regenerative medicine had a shaky start. In 2002, when news spread about the first cloned animal, Dolly the sheep, a raucous debate ensued. Scary headlines and organized opposition groups put pressure on government leaders, who responded by tightening restrictions on this type of research.
Fast forward to today, and regenerative medicine, which focuses on making unhealthy tissues and organs healthy again, is rewriting the code to healing many disorders, though it’s still young enough to be considered nascent. What started as one of the most controversial areas in medicine is now promising to transform it.
Progress in the lab has addressed previous concerns. Back in the early 2000s, some of the most fervent controversy centered around somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the process used by scientists to produce Dolly. There was fear that this technique could be used in humans, with possibly adverse effects, considering the many medical problems of the animals who had been cloned.
But today, scientists have discovered better approaches with fewer risks. Pioneers in the field are embracing new possibilities for cellular reprogramming, 3D organ printing, AI collaboration, and even growing organs in space. It could bring a new era of personalized medicine for longer, healthier lives - while potentially sparking new controversies.
Engineering tissues from amniotic fluids
Work in regenerative medicine seeks to reverse damage to organs and tissues by culling, modifying and replacing cells in the human body. Scientists in this field reach deep into the mechanisms of diseases and the breakdowns of cells, the little workhorses that perform all life-giving processes. If cells can’t do their jobs, they take whole organs and systems down with them. Regenerative medicine seeks to harness the power of healthy cells derived from stem cells to do the work that can literally restore patients to a state of health—by giving them healthy, functioning tissues and organs.
Modern-day regenerative medicine takes its origin from the 1998 isolation of human embryonic stem cells, first achieved by John Gearhart at Johns Hopkins University. Gearhart isolated the pluripotent cells that can differentiate into virtually every kind of cell in the human body. There was a raging controversy about the use of these cells in research because at that time they came exclusively from early-stage embryos or fetal tissue.
Back then, the highly controversial SCNT cells were the only way to produce genetically matched stem cells to treat patients. Since then, the picture has changed radically because other sources of highly versatile stem cells have been developed. Today, scientists can derive stem cells from amniotic fluid or reprogram patients’ skin cells back to an immature state, so they can differentiate into whatever types of cells the patient needs.
In the context of medical history, the field of regenerative medicine is progressing at a dizzying speed. But for those living with aggressive or chronic illnesses, it can seem that the wheels of medical progress grind slowly.
The ethical debate has been dialed back and, in the last few decades, the field has produced important innovations, spurring the development of whole new FDA processes and categories, says Anthony Atala, a bioengineer and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Atala and a large team of researchers have pioneered many of the first applications of 3D printed tissues and organs using cells developed from patients or those obtained from amniotic fluid or placentas.
His lab, considered to be the largest devoted to translational regenerative medicine, is currently working with 40 different engineered human tissues. Sixteen of them have been transplanted into patients. That includes skin, bladders, urethras, muscles, kidneys and vaginal organs, to name just a few.
These achievements are made possible by converging disciplines and technologies, such as cell therapies, bioengineering, gene editing, nanotechnology and 3D printing, to create living tissues and organs for human transplants. Atala is currently overseeing clinical trials to test the safety of tissues and organs engineered in the Wake Forest lab, a significant step toward FDA approval.
In the context of medical history, the field of regenerative medicine is progressing at a dizzying speed. But for those living with aggressive or chronic illnesses, it can seem that the wheels of medical progress grind slowly.
“It’s never fast enough,” Atala says. “We want to get new treatments into the clinic faster, but the reality is that you have to dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s—and rightly so, for the sake of patient safety. People want predictions, but you can never predict how much work it will take to go from conceptualization to utilization.”
As a surgeon, he also treats patients and is able to follow transplant recipients. “At the end of the day, the goal is to get these technologies into patients, and working with the patients is a very rewarding experience,” he says. Will the 3D printed organs ever outrun the shortage of donated organs? “That’s the hope,” Atala says, “but this technology won’t eliminate the need for them in our lifetime.”
New methods are out of this world
Jeanne Loring, another pioneer in the field and director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, says that investment in regenerative medicine is not only paying off, but is leading to truly personalized medicine, one of the holy grails of modern science.
This is because a patient’s own skin cells can be reprogrammed to become replacements for various malfunctioning cells causing incurable diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, macular degeneration and Parkinson’s. If the cells are obtained from a source other than the patient, they can be rejected by the immune system. This means that patients need lifelong immunosuppression, which isn’t ideal. “With Covid,” says Loring, “I became acutely aware of the dangers of immunosuppression.” Using the patient’s own cells eliminates that problem.
Microgravity conditions make it easier for the cells to form three-dimensional structures, which could more easily lead to the growing of whole organs. In fact, Loring's own cells have been sent to the ISS for study.
Loring has a special interest in neurons, or brain cells that can be developed by manipulating cells found in the skin. She is looking to eventually treat Parkinson’s disease using them. The manipulated cells produce dopamine, the critical hormone or neurotransmitter lacking in the brains of patients. A company she founded plans to start a Phase I clinical trial using cell therapies for Parkinson’s soon, she says.
This is the culmination of many years of basic research on her part, some of it on her own cells. In 2007, Loring had her own cells reprogrammed, so there’s a cell line that carries her DNA. “They’re just like embryonic stem cells, but personal,” she said.
Loring has another special interest—sending immature cells into space to be studied at the International Space Station. There, microgravity conditions make it easier for the cells to form three-dimensional structures, which could more easily lead to the growing of whole organs. In fact, her own cells have been sent to the ISS for study. “My colleagues and I have completed four missions at the space station,” she says. “The last cells came down last August. They were my own cells reprogrammed into pluripotent cells in 2009. No one else can say that,” she adds.
Future controversies and tipping points
Although the original SCNT debate has calmed down, more controversies may arise, Loring thinks.
One of them could concern growing synthetic embryos. The embryos are ultimately derived from embryonic stem cells, and it’s not clear to what stage these embryos can or will be grown in an artificial uterus—another recent invention. The science, so far done only in animals, is still new and has not been widely publicized but, eventually, “People will notice the production of synthetic embryos and growing them in an artificial uterus,” Loring says. It’s likely to incite many of the same reactions as the use of embryonic stem cells.
Bernard Siegel, the founder and director of the Regenerative Medicine Foundation and executive director of the newly formed Healthspan Action Coalition (HSAC), believes that stem cell science is rapidly approaching tipping point and changing all of medical science. (For disclosure, I do consulting work for HSAC). Siegel says that regenerative medicine has become a new pillar of medicine that has recently been fast-tracked by new technology.
Artificial intelligence is speeding up discoveries and the convergence of key disciplines, as demonstrated in Atala’s lab, which is creating complex new medical products that replace the body’s natural parts. Just as importantly, those parts are genetically matched and pose no risk of rejection.
These new technologies must be regulated, which can be a challenge, Siegel notes. “Cell therapies represent a challenge to the existing regulatory structure, including payment, reimbursement and infrastructure issues that 20 years ago, didn’t exist.” Now the FDA and other agencies are faced with this revolution, and they’re just beginning to adapt.
Siegel cited the 2021 FDA Modernization Act as a major step. The Act allows drug developers to use alternatives to animal testing in investigating the safety and efficacy of new compounds, loosening the agency’s requirement for extensive animal testing before a new drug can move into clinical trials. The Act is a recognition of the profound effect that cultured human cells are having on research. Being able to test drugs using actual human cells promises to be far safer and more accurate in predicting how they will act in the human body, and could accelerate drug development.
Siegel, a longtime veteran and founding father of several health advocacy organizations, believes this work helped bring cell therapies to people sooner rather than later. His new focus, through the HSAC, is to leverage regenerative medicine into extending not just the lifespan but the worldwide human healthspan, the period of life lived with health and vigor. “When you look at the HSAC as a tree,” asks Siegel, “what are the roots of that tree? Stem cell science and the huge ecosystem it has created.” The study of human aging is another root to the tree that has potential to lengthen healthspans.
The revolutionary science underlying the extension of the healthspan needs to be available to the whole world, Siegel says. “We need to take all these roots and come up with a way to improve the life of all mankind,” he says. “Everyone should be able to take advantage of this promising new world.”
Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.
Forty years ago, Joy Milne, a nurse from Perth, Scotland, noticed a musky odor coming from her husband, Les. At first, Milne thought the smell was a result of bad hygiene and badgered her husband to take longer showers. But when the smell persisted, Milne learned to live with it, not wanting to hurt her husband's feelings.
Twelve years after she first noticed the "woodsy" smell, Les was diagnosed at the age of 44 with Parkinson's Disease, a neurodegenerative condition characterized by lack of dopamine production and loss of movement. Parkinson's Disease currently affects more than 10 million people worldwide.
Milne spent the next several years believing the strange smell was exclusive to her husband. But to her surprise, at a local support group meeting in 2012, she caught the familiar scent once again, hanging over the group like a cloud. Stunned, Milne started to wonder if the smell was the result of Parkinson's Disease itself.
Milne's discovery led her to Dr. Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Together, Milne, Kunath, and a host of other scientists would use Milne's unusual sense of smell to develop a new diagnostic test, now in development and poised to revolutionize the treatment of Parkinson's Disease.
"Joy was in the audience during a talk I was giving on my work, which has to do with Parkinson's and stem cell biology," Kunath says. "During the patient engagement portion of the talk, she asked me if Parkinson's had a smell to it." Confused, Kunath said he had never heard of this – but for months after his talk he continued to turn the question over in his mind.
Kunath knew from his research that the skin's microbiome changes during different disease processes, releasing metabolites that can give off odors. In the medical literature, diseases like melanoma and Type 2 diabetes have been known to carry a specific scent – but no such connection had been made with Parkinson's. If people could smell Parkinson's, he thought, then it stood to reason that those metabolites could be isolated, identified, and used to potentially diagnose Parkinson's by their presence alone.
First, Kunath and his colleagues decided to test Milne's sense of smell. "I got in touch with Joy again and we designed a protocol to test her sense of smell without her having to be around patients," says Kunath, which could have affected the validity of the test. In his spare time, Kunath collected t-shirt samples from people diagnosed with Parkinson's and from others without the diagnosis and gave them to Milne to smell. In 100 percent of the samples, Milne was able to detect whether a person had Parkinson's based on smell alone. Amazingly, Milne was even able to detect the "Parkinson's scent" in a shirt from the control group – someone who did not have a Parkinson's diagnosis, but would go on to be diagnosed nine months later.
From the initial study, the team discovered that Parkinson's did have a smell, that Milne – inexplicably – could detect it, and that she could detect it long before diagnosis like she had with her husband, Les. But the experiments revealed other things that the team hadn't been expecting.
"One surprising thing we learned from that experiment was that the odor was always located in the back of the shirt – never in the armpit, where we expected the smell to be," Kunath says. "I had a chance meeting with a dermatologist and he said the smell was due to the patient's sebum, which are greasy secretions that are really dense on your upper back. We have sweat glands, instead of sebum, in our armpits." Patients with Parkinson's are also known to have increased sebum production.
With the knowledge that a patient's sebum was the source of the unusual smell, researchers could go on to investigate exactly what metabolites were in the sebum and in what amounts. Kunath, along with his associate, Dr. Perdita Barran, collected and analyzed sebum samples from 64 participants across the United Kingdom. Once the samples were collected, Barran and others analyzed it using a method called gas chromatography mass spectrometry, or GS-MC, which separated, weighed and helped identify the individual compounds present in each sebum sample.
Barran's team can now correctly identify Parkinson's in nine out of 10 patients – a much quicker and more accurate way to diagnose than what clinicians do now.
"The compounds we've identified in the sebum are not unique to people with Parkinson's, but they are differently expressed," says Barran, a professor of mass spectrometry at the University of Manchester. "So this test we're developing now is not a black-and-white, do-you-have-something kind of test, but rather how much of these compounds do you have compared to other people and other compounds." The team identified over a dozen compounds that were present in the sebum of Parkinson's patients in much larger amounts than the control group.
Using only the GC-MS and a sebum swab test, Barran's team can now correctly identify Parkinson's in nine out of 10 patients – a much quicker and more accurate way to diagnose than what clinicians do now.
"At the moment, a clinical diagnosis is based on the patient's physical symptoms," Barran says, and determining whether a patient has Parkinson's is often a long and drawn-out process of elimination. "Doctors might say that a group of symptoms looks like Parkinson's, but there are other reasons people might have those symptoms, and it might take another year before they're certain," Barran says. "Some of those symptoms are just signs of aging, and other symptoms like tremor are present in recovering alcoholics or people with other kinds of dementia." People under the age of 40 with Parkinson's symptoms, who present with stiff arms, are often misdiagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, she adds.
Additionally, by the time physical symptoms are present, Parkinson's patients have already lost a substantial amount of dopamine receptors – about sixty percent -- in the brain's basal ganglia. Getting a diagnosis before physical symptoms appear would mean earlier interventions that could prevent dopamine loss and preserve regular movement, Barran says.
"Early diagnosis is good if it means there's a chance of early intervention," says Barran. "It stops the process of dopamine loss, which means that motor symptoms potentially will not happen, or the onset of symptoms will be substantially delayed." Barran's team is in the processing of streamlining the sebum test so that definitive results will be ready in just two minutes.
"What we're doing right now will be a very inexpensive test, a rapid-screen test, and that will encourage people to self-sample and test at home," says Barran. In addition to diagnosing Parkinson's, she says, this test could also be potentially useful to determine if medications were at a therapeutic dose in people who have the disease, since the odor is strongest in people whose symptoms are least controlled by medication.
"When symptoms are under control, the odor is lower," Barran says. "Potentially this would allow patients and clinicians to see whether their symptoms are being managed properly with medication, or perhaps if they're being overmedicated." Hypothetically, patients could also use the test to determine if interventions like diet and exercise are effective at keeping Parkinson's controlled.
"We hope within the next two to five years we will have a test available."
Barran is now running another clinical trial – one that determines whether they can diagnose at an earlier stage and whether they can identify a difference in sebum samples between different forms of Parkinson's or diseases that have Parkinson's-like symptoms, such as Lewy Body Dementia.
"Within the next one to two years, we hope to be running a trial in the Manchester area for those people who do not have motor symptoms but are at risk for developing dementia due to symptoms like loss of smell and sleep difficulty," Barran had said in 2019. "If we can establish that, we can roll out a test that determines if you have Parkinson's or not with those first pre-motor symptoms, and then at what stage. We hope within the next two to five years we will have a test available."
In a 2022 study, published in the American Chemical Society, researchers used mass spectrometry to analyze sebum from skin swabs for the presence of the specific molecules. They found that some specific molecules are present only in people who have Parkinson’s. Now they hope that the same method can be used in regular diagnostic labs. The test, many years in the making, is inching its way to the clinic.
"We would likely first give this test to people who are at risk due to a genetic predisposition, or who are at risk based on prodomal symptoms, like people who suffer from a REM sleep disorder who have a 50 to 70 percent chance of developing Parkinson's within a ten year period," Barran says. "Those would be people who would benefit from early therapeutic intervention. For the normal population, it isn't beneficial at the moment to know until we have therapeutic interventions that can be useful."
Milne's husband, Les, passed away from complications of Parkinson's Disease in 2015. But thanks to him and the dedication of his wife, Joy, science may have found a way to someday prolong the lives of others with this devastating disease. Sometimes she can smell people who have Parkinson’s while in the supermarket or walking down the street but has been told by medical ethicists she cannot tell them, Milne said in an interview with the Guardian. But once the test becomes available in the clinics, it will do the job for her.
[Ed. Note: A older version of this hit article originally ran on September 3, 2019.]
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.